Lighting’s Modern Master: Robert Sonneman

An Interview With Robert Sonneman.

Robert Sonneman, “Lighting’s Modern Master,” pioneered contemporary lighting, turning it into an art form. His award-winning designs have been at the forefront of the design world for almost five decades. Since their introduction in the 1960s and ’70s, many of Sonneman’s designs have become modern classics.

His work continues to be recognized and acclaimed by the design community, museums, and major retailers. Sonneman’s designs have been exhibited in museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York; Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston; the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry; the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; St. Louis Design Center and the Saskatchewan Science Centre, Canada.

Sonneman has lectured at design schools and professional organizations internationally. As an active contributor to design education as a guest lecturer and critic, he has served on the Advisory Boards of the Pratt School of Architecture, Parsons School of Design and the Art Center College of Design. Additionally, he has participated in the Stanford Forum on Design and served on the design advisory board of the Nissan Motor Corporation.

As a working designer, Sonneman divided his time between Milan, Tokyo and his New York home. Through the 1970s, he broadened his insight from the origins of the early European industrial aesthetic and the Zen of the Japanese architectural masters, through the de-constructivists, the American Post-Modernists and to- day’s architectural sculpturalism. Sonneman recently shared his thoughts about the early days of his career, to his inspiration and where he sees the future of the lighting industry heading.

How did you get your start in the lighting business?

Three days out of the Navy at age 19, I answered an ad in The New York Times to work as the sole employee for lighting retailer George Kovacs. Although my parents were in the lighting business, they came from a traditional perspective, and Kovacs introduced me to the European notion of Modernism. It was an awakening and I was immediately captured by the European minimal modern perspective, from the Bauhaus industrialism to the sensuality of the Danish modern forms.

With an art background in high school and exposure to manufacturing in my father’s factory, the connection between art and design became my focus and my passion. Lighting was the medium, but functional product design became the core of my design essence and lifelong pursuit. In the following years, I studied and worked in architecture and industrial design, but lighting was always at the center of my practice. Lighting is the most diverse, infinitely interesting and challenging activity. It requires knowledge in a broad range of materials, processes, technologies and disciplines.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your new ideas and concepts?

Everything inspires me. It is hard for me to not be inspired because I am naturally curious and I love the process of learning and discovering. I began my odyssey in Milan at age 22. The more unfamiliar the place, the more curiosity it stimulated to discover new things and ideas. I saw this sophisticated culture of living with a passion for life that moved easily between the traditional world and the modern design that challenged it.

Each place has its allure.  Tokyo is so different today than when I was first discovering it in the 1960s, but the detailing of its classical architectural framing provided me with an insight into the cultural basis of developing superbly executed wood joinery, artistically and functionally. Today you can see that connection even in the most adventuresome and risky architecture and product design. There is a discipline in the execution of design, regardless of scale.

New York is infinitely diverse in its irreverence to a dominant historical singularity. Short walks in local areas excite one’s sensibilities with little tasty bites from cross-cultural influences and points of view that work alone or in creative tension of their mismatch. It is energizing and limitless in its sources of inspiration. Shanghai is big, bold, and overstated in an almost cartoon-like contrivance of style and exaggerated scale, but it also has interesting old areas to discover. The juxtaposition of the ancient set against the modern provides an infinite diversity of style and texture to draw inspiration from.

Your products also available at Blackman, has that been a successful venture for your company?

At the forefront of the luxury kitchen and bath market, Blackman has played a significant role in showcasing SONNEMAN – A Way of Light products, providing outstanding service throughout the customer experience, and contributing to our exceptional growth year after year. Our partnership with Blackman is tremendously valuable to us, and we look forward to growing together throughout the rest of this year and into the future.

Do you have a favorite design or two from your past or present lighting collection?

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. I don’t know if I have a favorite, except for what I am working on currently.

The designs we’re working on now are taking on an even more sleek, modern, and sophisticated aesthetic, and we continue to design with the most advanced technologies for superior lighting functionality. Architecturally- scalable lighting systems play a major part in our design vision.

Where do you see the future of lighting heading?

Integration is the key to understanding the future of lighting. Now that we understand that electronically generated illumination is a wave in the spectrum of energy, we can control, direct, and manage illumination as a component in a broad-based, integrated system of energy that can be deployed across multiple applications of a building system. We have moved our imagination of architecture, habitable spaces and urban centers into the limitless possibilities of the digital age.

In the five decades that I have worked, studied and learned my craft, the disruption of technology has never been more profound and more promising. My focus has always been on extending modern ideals through the language of design, and on creating relevant and functional products through a convergence of art and utility.

This is an energizing, interesting and incredibly rewarding time to be working in lighting design.  I am excited by the challenges, insights and added dimension of technology integration into the creative process. Enabled by new materials, processes, and technologies, we can now realize our imagination of innovative forms, structures, and applications in entirely new, innovative ways.

I have come to understand that science and technology can be enablers of art and design. The LED revolution re-energized and re-inspired me. Technology-driven design has opened an entirely new universe of imagination and possibilities. Now more than ever, I am excited to challenge the possibilities of what’s next in our pursuit of … illumination from the art of technology.

Taken from the Summer 2018 Issue of Blackman At Home


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