When it comes to lighting, Robert Sonneman is known as a legend in his field. With almost five decades of experience under his belt, the creative dynamo often referred to as "Lighting's Modern Master" began his career working alongside industry innovator George Kovacs, and later went on to serve as CEO of Ralph Lauren Home Product Development. Today, the 74-year-old continues to break barriers and push boundaries in the contemporary lighting category with SONNEMAN – A Way of Light. Check out the Q&A below to learn how this designer's rich history is influencing the future.
1. How did you get the job creating lighting products for George Kovacs?
Just out of the Navy, I worked my way through a business degree at LIU, as the sole employee in a lamp and accessory store on Madison Avenue called George Kovacs. In 1965 - my senior year - I designed a line, built a factory and started the wholesale business for George Kovacs. I left a year later to start my own lighting firm. Originally founding Sonneman as a Modern lighting brand in 1967, I operated the design and manufacturing company until sold in 1982. The brand established its name and reputation as a leader in the genres of architectural modern through the 20th century and became an iconic leader of mid-century modern.
Over the years, through academic study and working apprenticeships, I attained my architectural and design training and experience, and continued in product design and development for a range of well-recognized branded clients in the lighting and the home industries.
2. What prompted the transition to Ralph Lauren Home Product Development and what did you learn during your time as CEO?
It was an interesting opportunity offered and a chance to see a different world. As CEO of Ralph Lauren Home Product Development from 1999 to 2005, we designed and manufactured the products for the Ralph Lauren Home collection and developed some of the innovative ideas that Ralph wanted to see for the collection, such as a carbon fiber chair and other challenging products. I was not involved with the fashion side of the business, but the environment of high style elegance and glamour permeated the environment and influenced everything we did. I got to work with some incredibly talented people and discovered a different way of looking at things. It was very exciting, and I loved the experience.
3. Tell us about SONNEMAN - A Way of Light.
When Kovacs sold their business to a Chinese owned company, I elected not to have my designs go with them. I founded Sonneman—A Way of Light in 2003 along with my partners, David Littman, a highly accomplished owner of several lighting companies, and Sonny Park, President of Sonneman – A Way of Light. We are focused on creating extraordinary modern lighting of high quality and refinement. We believe that creativity, innovation, and commitment to excellence begins with design and lives in every aspect of everything that we do.
4. Who were some of your biggest artistic influences?
The Bauhaus notion of the industrial aesthetic as a basis for functional design, plus the notion of art as a result of utility, became a social pathos and a design premise that came to define my modernist roots.
The architecture of the early modernists like Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and other modern pioneers became the cornerstone of the modernists of my generation, setting forth the ‘less is more’ doctrine that defined the path I would travel. As we moved into the later modern periods of the New Wave, the Japanese-style architecture of Tado Ando and Arati Isosaki were important influences. The architecture of later periods, like the digital sculpturalism of Frank Ghery, the dramatic form development of Daniel Libeskind and David Childs, and countless others continue to inspire and influence me.
5. Are there any popular lighting trends that you’d advise against? Why?
People tend to over light in fewer areas but the secret is to use more units at less brightness levels, distributed throughout a space. Try to avoid trends as guides to inspiration; see design as style, not fashion. Fashion is six months, and style is 10 years. Keep it simple. Avoid contrivance. Don’t try to be different for its own sake. Don’t believe that LED is universally good, or bad. Focus on usefulness. Less is more.
6. Do you have a favorite piece or pieces? What makes it/them special?
I am always most excited about doing what’s next. It’s a continuum, and the pieces are moments in time which I see in the context of their evolution. I like the simplest most direct incarnations of minimalism or simple sculptural forms. There are several pieces of the thousands that I have done that mark the period or influences of the time. I don’t know if I have a favorite, except for what I am working on currently; however, taken in context of their generation, several pieces mark points of critical evolution.
I designed the Orbiter when I was 23, which was shown briefly at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. The Orbiter is now celebrating its 50th anniversary and has been launched in brass by RH Modern. Its purpose was to have a functional light that moved anywhere in a hemisphere—up or down, or fully extended. Somehow there was something that made perfect sense to me about there being a real integrity in doing something as simply as possible – to execute a task or a function without adornment and to achieve aesthetic value in its functionality and simplicity. There have been many others since, but the first piece came to define the origins of my point of view.
7. What’s next in lighting as far as trends and innovations?
Today we are focused on technology-driven design. It has changed everything. LED provided the opportunity to reinvent our product direction with a modern edge. It is no longer about style so much as it is about functional design achieving utility, application and performance. As we moved into LED, we sought to innovate and develop luminaires in forms made possible only with LED technology. It enabled us to redefine scale and application, reimagining the luminaire in new incarnations.
We are only at the beginning of electronic illumination becoming an infinitely diverse medium for innovation and change. The future is integration of systems that manage all aspects of the built environment. Electronic illumination will manage our circadian rhythm; color tuning will adjust our mood and perception of people and places; and the heat energy - uselessly discharged - will now provide our ubiquitous wifi. LED Illumination will grow our food and clean our air. The future is bright, variable and controllable with infinite variety and unimagined possibilities to see the world and manage the environments of our lives.
8. Summer or winter?
Love the change of seasons.
9. Home cooked or takeout?
10. LA or SF?
11. Tea or coffee?
12. Classical or classic rock?