SPOTLIGHT: Q&A with Robert Sonneman

Although Robert Sonneman’s parents were in the lighting business, they came from a traditional perspective, according to the designer. George Kovacs introduced Sonneman to the European notion of Modernism and he was drawn to minimalism from the Bauhaus Industrialism to the sensuality of the Danish forms.

After graduating in business, he started a lighting factory for George Kovacs, and soon after, started his own factory and designed the line, which gained recognition and acceptance by the market and design community.

“You can find some of these very early designs online on art sites as mid-century modern classics,” he told Hotel Business Design. “My training in mechanics and design came eclectically through life long self-study, investigation and trial and error.” He sold his lighting manufacturing company in 1983, and years later, studied architecture and got the opportunity to design projects “until my practice was just overwhelmed with product design projects,” he said.

Since founding his design company in 1974, Sonneman has had the opportunity to have industrial designers and architects on his team who provided him with an academic resource to develop and grow his skills. Having spent several years developing product for Ralph Lauren, he gained insight to a richly eclectic, broad range of style. “I still actively study and learn new approaches and continue to expand and grow my skills,” he said.

Sonneman’s designs have been exhibited internationally as well as in the U.S. in major museums and galleries for the last 40 years. Along with partners David Littman and Sonny Park, Sonneman launched the lighting manufacturing business, Sonneman-A Way of Light.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Always a designer?

No, I did not know that I wanted to be a designer, although I was always involved with creative activities. My dad was a lighting manufacturer and I always saw myself becoming a lighting manufacturer. Although I took art, painting and sculpture classes as a kid and graduated with a business degree, I never connected the idea of design to manufacturing. It wasn’t until several years later when I had to create a product line for George Kovacs and then for Sonneman Lighting, that a well-known designer of the era, Neil Small, commented to me that I was a terrific designer, to which I replied, ‘Designer? What’s a designer?’ When I finally connected the dots, I began to know what I was. 

Why lighting…what about it fascinates you?

Lighting is infinitely interesting and incredibly diverse, covering a broad range of disciplines and applications. I came to lighting having been exposed to the architectural modernist ideals of the functional aesthetic and connected it with my sensibilities of art and commerce. Lighting can be abstract yet practical, simple or complex. I am challenged by the creative activity and by the infinite number of manufacturing processes, crafts and technologies that lighting production requires.

You’ve been called “Lighting’s Modern Master.” What does that mean to you?

More than an activity or aesthetic, the ideals of Modernism define a direct way of thinking about and approaching life. To achieve recognition within the community of modern art, architecture and design represents an acceptance that validates my work in the context of the modern movement.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by what’s next. I am infinitely curious about ideas and new or different ways of seeing things. I am passionate about architecture, great industrial design, fresh graphics and innovations in technology. I love the process of investigation and the creative challenge of discovering a new path or a new way on a road well-traveled.

What have you learned along the way?

I have learned that learning is its own reward and that there are few absolutes. I have learned to be open to people and to ideas. I have learned that inspiration and creativity is not limited to a few but rather is the province of many. The more you are exposed to creativity the more creative you become. 


What advice can you share with others?

“Love what you do and you will never work a day in your life.” Or as my dad put it, “Find something that you love to do and do it well, the rest will take care of itself.”     

Do you have a favorite product you designed? Why?

My favorite product has not yet been done because I am always most excited about doing the next thing. Quattro that I did in collaboration with Peter Polick is the most groundbreaking in terms of the science and technology of illumination and a real achievement in engineering. I really love the standard of excellence that we were able to achieve with our team production of Quattro. It really sets the bar and the objective for our future endeavors.

Is there one you wish you could redesign?

I constantly redesign during the process —when it is done I move on. Of course, I see things that I feel we could have done better, but I see design as a moment in time in a continuum. We are always designing something new and that always takes my focus and my attention. 

What have you not accomplished/designed yet that you’d still like to do?

I am loving the involvement with LED illumination and the electronic universe that has allowed us to rethink and change the form factor of lighting. I would like to integrate the building as the illuminator in an integrated architectural form. Frank Gehry has come very close to understanding this connection in his IAC building.

Describe yourself in five words.

Curious, passionate, compassionate, focused, grateful.

Do you have a signature style?

I am a modernist with a historical sensibility. I break the rules but I understand and respect the precedent and the process.  Although I connect viscerally with the simplicity of a minimalist form and space, I created ‘Urban Primitive,’ a range of home furnishings rooted in the Mission style which was described as ‘a uniquely American aesthetic.’ I believe that description fits well with my style identity.

From the origins of the European industrial aesthetic, the Zen of the Japanese architectural masters, through the de-constructivists, the American Post Modernists and the current architectural sculpturalism, I believe we are evolving an American Contemporary Style that is broadly diverse. Far more encompassing, today’s contemporary design crosses over several genres from modern’s original machine aesthetic to a more comfortable, individually centric expressive style.

Talk about the relationship between “business man/entrepreneur” and designer. What are the challenges to wearing both hats simultaneously?

There is a difference between being a designer and being in the business of design. I have always pointed out that design is an economic discipline that meets specific market and manufacturing criteria to be successful. Design is not art for art’s sake. I am rarely in conflict between my creative vision and my business requirements because they are not mutually exclusive but rather a requirement of each other. I try to keep these motivations in context and if I feel the need to express some creative expression that is inconsistent with the business activity, I simply do it somewhere else. I have often written and lectured on the connection and conflict between art and commerce. Ultimately, one comes to understand that commerce is the medium that sustains the art of design.

What is your design philosophy? How do you apply it to your creations?

There is elegance in simplicity. Achieve functionality in the most direct way possible, convey the idea free from contrivance, in simple forms, and have clarity in the point of view.

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