Q+A with Robert Sonneman
For more than four decades, New York City-based Robert Sonneman has been at the forefront of modern lighting. In 1967 he launched his own lighting company under the Sonneman brand, which in 2003 became SONNEMAN–A Way of Light.
Renowned for clean lines and innovative approaches, Sonneman’s sleek, award-winning fixtures have become contemporary classics and have been displayed by the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Art Institute, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, UCLA Exhibition on Design, Karnette County Art Museum, and the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum.
How did you get into lighting design?
Robert Sonneman: Three days out of the Navy at age 19, I answered an ad in the New York Times to work in a lighting store. That store was George Kovacs on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and I was hired as the sole employee.
Although my parents were in the lighting business, they came from a traditional perspective and Kovacs introduced me to Modernism. It was 1961 and I was immediately captured by the movement.
Who or what has influenced your aesthetic?
RS: When I started, modern design was firmly rooted in the European notion of the Bauhaus industrial aesthetic. Those of my era were all trained as Mies van der Rohe disciples and believed in the mission of distilling an object to its functional essence and minimal simplicity. Less was always more and the aesthetic value was derived from what we saw as the honesty of the functional form. This was true whether it was pristine glass boxes that housed corporate offices, bent tubular chairs to sit on, or minimal stem and base lamps to read by.
I’ve always been fascinated with movement, weight, and balance. I saw the lamps that I built as lighting machines that glorified the industrial aesthetic. As modern design and architecture morphed into other genres of contemporary style, I also explored new creative paths.
Although I love the early Modernists like Mackintosh, Rietveld, Breuer, and Wright, I was thrilled to study the Japanese New Wave architecture, including such masters as of Tado Ando, Arata Isozaki, and others. Countless modern architects and designers from Gehry to Sottsass continue to influence my development and open pathways of thought and inspiration.
How did the invention of LED technology expand your vision?
RS: Design is often evolutionary and only rarely revolutionary, but today technology has created a revolution. LED has invited rethinking of the form factors, size, and scale of luminaires. We are now combining design innovation and the science and control of electronic illumination to change the forms of the objects we create to bring light to a task.
What are some of your favorite designs over the years?
RS: Orbiter, L’arc, Feather, Big Mack, Floating Glass, Vienna, Bankers Lamp, Plinth, and Quattro.
You also did furniture design. Why did you ultimately decide to focus on lighting?
RS: Sonneman Design Group was an active industrial design and architectural consultancy with an extensive client base for decades. We designed furniture, appliances, housewares, plumbing fixtures, ceiling fans, and other home-based consumer products.
In many ways, the experience of designing products other than lighting was liberating because the many requirements for each product category stimulated a whole new and exciting learning process. I really loved the diversity and the confrontation of new challenges. Furniture design was fun for us, but lighting has always been a part of my life and in my DNA.
Lighting is infinitely interesting and incredibly challenging on many levels. It requires design, knowledge of manufacturing, materials and process, technical and mechanical expertise across a broad range of activities, and now a deep commitment to technology. It is used in every aspect of civilized life and across every venue. The vision is limitless and the discipline of executing well-designed product is demanding, but it is what I love to do.
What inspires you?
Everything inspires me; walks in cities, architecture, restaurants, bars, cars, stores, magazines, and mostly just working. I love the process. I am always excited to start new projects and investigate the next idea. I am driven by “what’s next”, so I am very fortunate to be so engaged by the challenge and its process.
What’s on the horizon for Sonneman?
RS: Despite the history, legacy, and age of its founder and creative driver, Sonneman is a company at its beginning. This is the dawn of the place I always wanted to be in creatively because technology has burst open the possibilities of imagination.
I believe in the da Vinci dogma that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” But I also understand that we can embrace the future with a connection to our past.
Which of your designs would work well in a space that’s more traditional rather than modern?
RS: The most modern works with the most traditional and the most traditional works with the most modern. Break the rules!
What are some of your favorite Sonneman products on YLighting?
RS: they are…
- QUATTRO—One of my all-time favorites. It’s pure geometry and it’s impossible to improve on solid geometry. What we achieved from a mechanical and technical standpoint with flat panel and optical sensory was revolutionary. That set the standard of quality going forward and that’s the level we want to strive for in everything we do.
- Connetix—This was really the beginning of using LEDs, which changed the size and shape of what we were able to do. Up to then, if we used conventional bulbs we wouldn’t be able to maintain singularity of form and the bulb would have been an add-on.
- Puri—Happy accidents happen when you develop things because of the material. We discovered this material that had a slightly metallic fiber in it and it was translucent and transparent but held volume and almost captured air.
- Chelsea—This fixture reminds me of gutting an iron-facade industrial building, but keeping the plumbing. It’s old welding in a striking white environment so it makes for an exciting contrast.
- Stiletto—Technology allowed us to develop a pure, minimum form. It’s a sliver of light that provides great illumination, but is so understated in its profile that’s its sculptural.
What’s your creative design process?
RS: In my early years, concept development was a process of investigation and discovery that often involved wandering in foreign cities. Putting myself in new places and situations would ignite a unique feeling or vision about the experience or sights that I would encounter. I immersed myself in the process and had to do that alone. I would capture a perspective, an essence that became a point of view. Establishing a point of view is the most critical component of concept development. Once identified, the design activity flows naturally as does emotional response to its perspective. I have often said that design comes more from what you see than what you think. Like any creative process, design results from how you perceive, sort though, and interpret stimuli.
Once, around 1988, I was late in developing a product line for Kovacs. I spent several days in the country, with a view of the trees and the mountains, struggling with uninspired sketches going nowhere. I went back home to Manhattan and walked into the Museum of Modern Art and discovered a huge building facade as part of the Vienna exhibition. I was struck by its power and immediately felt inspired not just by the aesthetic but by the conflict exhibited between the constructivist and deconstructivist architectural sensibilities. With that feeling captured, I went home to design the new line called Vienna. It was one of our most important and enduringly successful releases. The point of view, once established, drove the process of design.
Today, access to information is both available and universally accessible. While that has obvious advantages it also sanitizes the process and in some ways subverts the experience of investigation and discovery. I go through a fairly structured and compartmentalized protocol of product design and development. Although it can be segmented into stages and activities, the entire process tends to flow continuously because I now have so much experience to call upon. First, I keep abreast of what’s happening in design, then establish concepts and a point of view with sketches. Next, we develop the 3-D models and finally manufacture it.