Company: SONNEMAN: A Way of Light
Interesting Fact: In 1967, Sonneman introduced Orbiter, which came to define the modern pathos of his life’s work. The Orbiter became such a big deal that it wasn’t just sold it stores. It was shown in museums and galleries. The simple luminaire remains a classic, still in use all these years later.
Robert Sonneman is a businessman, artist, designer and a leader in the field of lighting. But most of all he’s curious. Curious about anything and everything. He can even tell you how sleep patterns affect creativity. The founder of SONNEMAN: A Way of Light will never be satisfied, and that’s what makes him so successful at everything he does. There’s always more to learn, something new to discover. The avowed Modernist (please don’t call his work contemporary) took a quick step away from his constant quest for knowledge to impart a little bit of what he’s learned during his legendary career as a lighting designer. That’s the thing about voracious learners. They make great teachers.
Q- Robert, first of all we appreciate your taking the time to talk with us. What are you working on right now if you don’t mind us asking? We aren’t asking you to reveal secrets of course!
A- I’m excited about everything we’re working on, but I never talk about projects in development until we’re ready to show them. I never have, and I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s a process. The process is a long one and now as we get near where we want, we’re pretty sure things will land the way they’re envisioned. But one never knows.
Q- OK, let’s start at the beginning then. Why lighting? What brought you into this world of illumination?
A- My parents were in the traditional lighting business, the lamp business. I got out of the Navy when I was 19 and saw an ad in the New York Times for a lighting store. I got out (of the Navy) on a Friday, and went in for the interview on a Monday morning. I got the job working for George Kovacs. He had lights and decorative accessories. I was the only employee.
I worked my way through college through that process. What was important about that experience for me is that as we built it I ended up starting a separate company for George called George Kovacs Lighting. I designed the lines for that company while I worked my way through school. What was pivotal about that was it was George who introduced me to Modernism, and the origins of Modernism. From that exposure came the center of my creative interest – modern architecture, the extensions of which are modern product design.
That was a critical period and that was just luck. I could have gotten out of the Navy and missed that paper on the weekend. Who knows, I would have been probably become a lawyer. As a kid I was involved in art and sculpture. My dad was a terrific painter as a matter of fact, and a designer really. I told him at 14 that I was painting something. He said that if I was going to paint, I should go to classes at the Art Students League. That’s where he sent me on Saturdays and Sundays. When I went to high school, my school was across the street from The Museum of Modern Art. I happened to have a teacher who became a well known artist named James Dines. We had a special relationship, and he taught me how to look at art and how to understand it. Well, understanding modern art is a different story, but at least how to look at it.
Q- A lot of successful people say luck plays a big role in success, but you’ve put in the work too. Plus you have a mind for business?
A- I went to Long Island University and my majors were economics and business. I was going to law school. I think there’s a difference between being a designer and being an artist. There’s a difference between being a designer and being in the business of design. Later in life I taught and lectured, and ran a design company for about 25 years. I always made the distinction between the practice of design and being an artist. That doesn’t mean design can’t be artistic. It means that design has to meet other criteria as well. So yes, (my education at LIU) is a good background.
As a matter of fact, when my daughter graduated from Berkeley Architecture School, she came to work for us in the studio for about four years. I told her she needed to go out and do something else. She needed some other experiences. She was pretty upset with me, but on her way out, I told her, “Oh, by the way, get yourself an MBA.” She asked what she needed that for and I told her, you have to know the rules. I believe that. My business background is not in any way in conflict with my creative activity. Instead, it’s helped me understand and form the discipline I needed and still need today.
Q- You’ve been in this business a long time. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since you started?
A- All industries, including home arts and especially the lighting industry, have changed from being evolutionary to revolutionary. I was always a modernist. My core was always modern design. But the modern design was always based on the principles of modernism and the schools that emerged from that. It was an evolutionary process. Now its technology based. That has been the most exciting, dramatic and important change that’s happened in terms of the product side of the industry.
Q- And when did you notice that change?
A- I can say when it started for us. I can tell you that years ago, about 5-7 years ago, people were coming out with LEDs. Everybody was throwing something in the marketplace with LEDs. They were buying these LEDs in China and putting the LEDs in whatever forms they were already using. I looked at LEDs, and knew I didn’t really understand it. So I spent three years in a process of study, to learn the technology and try to understand it so that I could use it.
When we came into the market late, which was probably a year or two after most companies had introduced LED, we were sure we knew what we were doing. We knew how to use the technology and the science. We understood how to use the attributes of the medium. The key thing about that was not just creating light electronically. It allowed us to totally rethink the form factors, the scale and the application of the luminaires. For me, it was sort of like before BC and AD, there was a stake in the ground that really defined history.
Q- Some successful and established designers were probably a little scared about the new technology. You jumped right in. What is it that made you want to be a part of this new revolution?
A- I’m curious. Period. The thing that I like most is the process of learning. I was probably 40 years old before I put in a day in architecture school or any design school. At that point I was already successful from a financial standpoint, and I was fairly well recognized. But I felt I had to go back to school and learn something. That process of learning and investigation and discovery is what excites me.
Q- What are you most proud of as you look back on your career? You’re not done of course, but there have to be some moments that stand out.
A- I’m not somebody who looks at something I’ve done and is proud. It’s all a continuum. I’ll look at something and think that was pretty good for where I was at that point. I’m more curious about what’s next. But I guess it could have been when I did the Orbiter, and that was picked up by the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. I did lot of things in those days that were risky and considered experimental. Most of the things I designed because I didn’t know that I couldn’t. A lot of things I wouldn’t have designed if I knew I couldn’t. I got involved with the mechanics and pathos or weight and balance. That was an important period.
Later, there were some pieces I did for George Kovacs and SONNEMAN, like Floating Glass and Bankers Lamp, and the McIntosh. I look at all of those things and think that as a body of work that’s pretty interesting. But I’m much more interested in what I’m working on than what I’ve done.
Q- OK, we asked you to look back. Now, let’s look forward a bit. What’s the next big thing in lighting and lighting design? Is it LED-based?
A- I think the key thing going forward is integration. What I mean is that we’re in a digital age. That’s not going away. It’s going to expand. Everything can be controlled now on your phone, anything that’s web based or wirelessly based. So lighting, as opposed to being a stand alone component in a room or a space, is going to be integral to a system of living or working. As lighting integrates into the architecture, we’ll get byproducts such as the heat that’s generated from the core of LEDs, we can use that to create networks. All the stimuli that you can control in a space are going to be integrated into a system.
Q- What makes you tick, gets you out of bed in the morning, moves you to create and do something new every day?
A- I’m driven by what’s next. As I said, I see this as process of investigation. I don’t see the things we’re working on as a conclusion. I see them as a point along the way and the process is exciting and stimulating. You find something you love to do and you do it well. That’s what I do. I can’t wait when I get up to grab my coffee and get to my computer and start cranking ideas out. And that’s your most productive time (in the morning). When I get up, that’s when I do most of my concepts. I’m a morning person. There’s a whole science to that too.
Q- When you’re not designing the next great pendant or sconce, how do you like to spend your time?
A- I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I was a pilot. I was a heli-skier. I do a lot of physical activity. I find it’s easy to do a lot of things and compartmentalize. Those things help you when you go back to do the tasks you have to do.
Q- We’ll put you on the spot here. How would you describe yourself – artist, designer, businessman? You can pick another word or two, of course.
A- I am really design driven. If I get into a car and the composition of the steering panel is poor, I can’t keep that car. I can’t deal with it. Design is not something I do. It’s something I am. I think that’s true of most people who work in creative disciplines in the modern space.
Q- We ask this one with everybody. What would you be doing if you weren’t a leader in lighting and design?
A- I’d be an architect. I was kidding about the lawyer thing. I like law and that whole way of thinking. But I like having a lot of fun. I don’t know any happy lawyers. (Laughs). I know a lot of people who have studied law and done other things and are happy. But I don’t know any happy lawyers. I really love what I do. I consider it a privilege that I’m able to have the kind of creative expression and fun that I do. It’s hard work, a lot of hard work. But I feel very blessed.
Q- What’s the biggest mistake people make with their lighting choices?
A- Too much light in a single location. Spaces are not generally used for only one thing. Some are used for specific purposes. But if you’re in a home, you have work, rest and play. And I remember this from working in retail; people would ask how many watts something would take. We built one at Kovacs that was 1,500 watts. It would blow any circuit anywhere. People wanted the most light they could get out of any single lamp. The problem is that then you have this great big bright spot and the other areas are in shadow or in various shades of darkness – 50 shades of darkness (laughs).
The point is, when you light a space you have to understand that you only see what you light. The way you perceive color, scale and shape is entirely a function of how it’s lit.
Q- You’ve influenced a generation (or two) of designers. There are college students today probably taking classes about you. If you could be in those classrooms or could talk to the Sonneman wannabes out there, what would would you tell them?
A- Business is a good place to start. In the classes I taught and lectured, I would write on the blackboard in big letters M-O-N-E-Y. That’s how I would start it. It’s not a dirty word. You have to understand that if your purpose is to be expressionist only, then you’re an artist. Be an artist. If your purpose is to develop a product that people can make, that can be sold and put in a box and shipped, then you have other disciplines you have to learn as well. All of those disciplines involve components of business, of bringing a product from conception to the marketplace. For a student who is wide-eyed and excited about the unlimited creativity and mission, that changes their point of view.
Q- OK, we’ll let you get back to work. Anything else you’d like to talk about?
A- For me, if I had to mention one very important thing, it’s that there has to be integrity in the process. Great design is based on integrity and commitment to a point of view. It’s not a random occurrence.