March 20, 2013

Fast Take: Undercover Icon Robert Sonneman

Robert Sonneman, principal and founder, SONNEMAN—A Way of Light.

Since the late 1960s, designer Robert Sonneman has created some of the most innovative and functional modern lighting solutions of the 21st century. His eye for detail and unyielding commitment to technology propelled the launch of his first company in 1967, a lighting design studio and manufacturer now called

SONNEMAN—A Way of Light

, and has earned him awards in product design and placement in institutions such as the

Museum of Modern Art

in New York and the

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

. Here, Sonneman discusses his vision for integrating technology, function and art with interiors, and why he prefers working with mid-century modern materials like chrome, stainless steel and glass.

Interior Design: You’ve worked in some beautiful cities—New York, Milan and Tokyo to name a few. What about each city inspired you most?

Robert Sonneman: 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 when I was 22 years old. 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 60s, 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 adventurous 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.

ID: How do you see the lighting market changing in the future?

RS: Lighting is in a revolution of technological change. It is emerging from the hundreds of years of burning fuel or filaments to provide light to a science of electronic illumination that generates brightness and color with infinite hue and programmable control. This is the dawn of a new age and we have only just begun to investigate, understand and develop its possibilities.

Robert Sonneman and Peter Polic's Quattro™ uses 25% less energy than conventional LED task lamps.

Robert Sonneman and Peter Polic’s Quattro™ uses 25% less energy than conventional LED task lamps.

ID: Which of your many projects has been the most challenging and why?

RS: The challenge to create and the struggle to execute is a normal part of the process. My most challenging project is the one that I am working on at any moment, but I am most excited by the new technology of the flat-panel LED that we have developed for


because it demanded so much to achieve such apparent simplicity. The technology allows us to change the way we think and is providing us with the opportunity to completely reinvent the form factor and scale of lighting devices.

ID: What drives you to continue designing after all these years of success?

RS: I am driven by what’s next. I am curious and challenged and excited to discover. I work every day with a team of dedicated young people, eager to learn and anxious to invent their futures. I can’t wait to get to work each day. I learn new design programs, study Italian, and read on biographies, news, art and business. If I were to retire, I would go to school to expand my knowledge and build my skills. I plan to live and learn.

ID: What is next for your company?

RS: SONNEMAN will push the boundaries of design and innovation beyond what we could possibly conceive before because we are able to push design into the science of electronic illumination and control. It is about science and art, not in conflict, but rather an expansion of our creative pallet. We are driven not by the desire to be the biggest, but rather by the passion to be the best. We are at a stage that permits us to explore and develop new products of and for a new generation with both the desire and the resources to do so.

ID: What helpful piece of advice would you share with those who are just entering the industry?

RS: History is interesting and necessary to understand but not to repeat. Find your path with the knowledge of the past and the passion and integrity to define your future with your own insight and point of view. Break the rules!

Recent DesignWire