Robert Sonneman

May 10, 2023

Sonneman – A Way of Light celebrates its 60th anniversary, with Robert Sonneman still at the helm leading the studio to success.

darc’s editor, Sarah Cullen, sat down with Sonneman to briefly discuss his history with the brand, but to also discover how the world of lighting and indeed business has evolved over the last six decades.

Born and raised in Manhattan, NYC, Robert Sonneman was fortunate to experience a blend of both public and private education. “Even when very young, if I chose not to show up at school on a winter day, I would often seek the warmth of one of several museums that were accessible along the route,” he reminisces.

Sonneman was also lucky enough to be surrounded by art as a child, and actively encouraged by his father to seek out inspiration in everyday life. “I got to grow up around art,” he says. “Encouraged by my father to explore my early interest in art, I took weekly classes at the art students league as an early teenager. I was always building something, from model aeroplanes to boats to bicycles. But my models were not built to the instructions, even when they were available. Somehow, I always sought out another approach and wanted to build it differently. They often didn’t work the way they were intended to, but I still wanted to do it another way and I guess I still do.”

Sonneman had a brief spell with the Navy before leaving at the age of 19. It was at this point he first found his way to the world of lighting. “I answered an ad for a job in a little shop on Madison Avenue selling European modern lighting and home accessories. The name of the shop was George Kovacs. I was the only employee and when I wasn’t selling or sweeping up, I was figuring out how to make something that a customer might have described from something they liked in the store but wanted it to be different in some way.

“George introduced me to European modernism in architecture and design. His introduction to the straightforward approach to the modern aesthetic and the integrity of minimalism immediately clicked with me and became foundational to my life’s focus and point of view.”

After graduating from Long Island University a few years later, Sonneman opened his first factory, at the age of 22. From there, he took Kovacs to market selling the modern lighting pieces he created. “One of my first designs was the Orbiter, on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and when people told me “You’re a great designer,” I thought to myself what’s a designer?  But as I pursued my creative path little by little, I realised that a designer is what I was becoming.”

Despite his early successes, Sonneman has gathered a wealth of knowledge and experience through various job roles. “My career has been varied and challenged through several changes, stages, and iterations of experience.   

“Almost everything that I have done I did because I didn’t know that I couldn’t.

“Sonneman – A Way of Light was founded because of events that coalesced around a simple idea. When George Kovacs sold his company, I owned the patents and legal rights to the products that I designed for him.

“In 2003, at the urging of the sales reps to go back into manufacturing and at my reluctance to do so, I called David Littman, my long-time friend who immediately came to my studio. In that period, I was designing and licensing products for about six to eight other companies and felt that I would do the same with his companies. David, Sonny Park (Executive Chairman), and I sat in the office to discuss another possible license deal with Hudson Valley. After only a few minutes of David’s thought, he looked at me across the room and said: “Robert I will do this deal with you on one condition and on one condition only: We will manufacture these designs under the Robert Sonneman name, and we will do it as 50-50 partners. I looked across the room at Sonny for her assessment and approval and when she indicated her willingness to go forward, we agreed and launched Contemporary Visions, which matured into Sonneman – A Way of Light.”

Looking back at some of the more significant moments in his career, Sonneman struggles to select standouts as there have been so many. “There were so many significant moments along the odyssey of my career that it is hard, in reflection, to single out which were more important than the others. Sometimes small decisions or happenings led to significant outcomes that proved to be larger, grander, and more impactful than I could have imagined or planned for. But without a doubt, there have been critical inflexion points that changed our destiny. One experience that changed our trajectory was in November 2011. I was sitting in the studio conference room with my partner Sonny and with Nicolas, Vice President of product development. Gazing at the renderings tacked on the wall of the new products that I had designed and were ready for release for a January show, I said: “This line stinks. It’s just not good, not important, and not the best we can do and it’s my fault”.

“I worked through that weekend reimagining what lighting should be about and what was important enough to bring to market and the realisation that it was not about decorative configurations but rather about what we could achieve with the new technology of LED. It changed everything. We had to become a technology-driven company.

“I did the conceptual drawings and a week later the solid works models were in the factory. Nicolas and Christian, our engineer, were on a plane to make the concepts work and to build them in time for our January show. They did it and we opened to the “oohs and aahs” of our dazzled customers. The very first sale of our new design was from a national department store that placed an order for one million dollars.

“The refusal to accept mediocrity and the courage to admit and accept responsibility for who we were and what we should be could have easily been lost in the pressure of the moment and the acceptance of the mundane.

“The entire direction of the company changed, and we began to build out our team and our vision for the future toward a single objective: Illumination from the art of Technology.”

Sonneman has been fortunate to witness and play a role in the changes of product design over the last few decades, witnessing the evolution of LED technology and manufacturing efficiency.

“When I began designing lighting products in the 1960s, lighting was looked upon as an accessory to the interior design and less as a focal point defining the utility of a space. The creative process during that time was all manually executed, supported by hand-drawn sketch concepts and mechanical drawings. Even our study models were hand-crafted in metals, wood, and paper.

“In its early stages, designing lighting was often the contrivance of creating decorative or modern forms, to support shades and glass shapes, to hold electric light bulbs in various positions. The functional side of lamp and fixture design was defined by the target markets of the client. The idea of providing an illuminating object was much more about its aesthetic appearance than about achieving lighting performance per illuminating standards.

“In my years of designing home products and small appliances, the focus was to provide functionality repackaged to project a technical or performance advancement. Make it more modern, make it sleeker and make it look like the latest in innovation in the small appliance space.

“As a modernist, I designed furniture in the context of an architecturally modern period or school, i.e., Mackintosh, Bauhaus, Prairie, or Functionalism to name a few. It was an interesting experience that I enjoyed but it did not hold my attention with the same passion and inquisitiveness that I experience designing lighting. It is a marriage of art and design with the innovation of the new frontier of technology.

“Today we continue to draw quick sketches in sketchbooks but immediately go to 2D and 3D CADD to develop and visualise the creative concepts modelled with details with 3D printing and other digital renderings and modelling.

“I am a modernist driven by simplicity and functionality designed from an intelligent point of view. My style is rooted in the pathos of modern functionality of the mid-20th century and has grown with the evolution of modern architecture and design through the last six decades. I have remained committed to my minimal approach and to executing design with simplicity and the integrity of purpose. As Modernism evolved and morphed into genres of style, my vision and my approach expanded but I still adhere to the core principles of Functionalism. Certainly, technology has altered what is now possible but if anything, I believe that it has allowed us to execute innovative design with even more functionality and simplicity.”

When asked what some of the most frustrating elements of working with design are, Sonneman describes any creative process as “driven by the passion of the creator engaged in the struggle to innovate creatively.”

“Imagining a vision for a specific purpose or from the abstract space of experience always challenges the creator to think differently. Design does not usually appear in its resolved state but rather in stages of development that the creator moves through to evolve as an approach to realising a vision.

“With the literally thousands of designs that I have created over the past 60+ years, I have developed an approach to the process that I have found effective but certainly no less challenging. I don’t look at a reference of another competitive product while I am trying to conceptualise a project. I look at other categories of other products constantly but when I sit to draw, I want to see nothing but a white page and I let my memory and my imagination bring lines to paper. There are lots of times that are frustrating and unresolved but there are also times when new imagery emerges from my imagination. I always seek a point of view and when I find it, the rest is an easy exercise in developing and resolving that approach.

“Advancing technology in many disciplines will change the development and experience of lighting product design. Integration into the architectural utility, form and design will continue to evolve the unity of lighting as a system within the presence of building environments. Conceptually, the imagination of the built environment will include lighting as a dynamic component to the environmental experience of a space.

“More so than ever, you will see and experience what you light.”

Sonneman believes that technological developments, alongside science, can be enablers of art and design. “Technology has enabled a dramatic shift offering a new universe of imagination and possibilities.

“Electronically generated illumination is a wave in the spectrum of energy and as such we can control, direct, and manage illumination as a component in a broad-based integrated system of energy.

“Coupled with the performance, efficiency, size and optical options, technology has changed the design, application, and utility of illumination.

“If there is a downside to technology impacting design, we have not found it. All the applications that we have applied to the design of our LED products have proven superior in performance. We have found technology helps us expand and improve our product design and development. If we use high-quality diodes and high-quality controls, we have found the shift to LEDs a positive enabler of our product offering.”

When asked whether the lighting industry has moved in a direction he anticipated over the years, Sonneman references the developments in international manufacturing. “In the 1960s, lighting was less about illumination technology and more about the fabrication of materials like metals, glass, ceramics, and stone. Lighting was locally made in factories with manufacturing resources all available in the New York area. As regulations like OSHA took over, and labour unions took hold, the costs of operations and materials rose past the market’s acceptance. Manufacturers began to move west to California for Mexican labour and to European manufacturers in Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Poland. As time passed, Taiwan became a manufacturing centre with great skills and low prices. Over the next 20 years, manufacturing began to move to Hong Kong and then to mainland China where it is now centred with extensive facilities and a huge supporting infrastructure. We are now on the cusp of seeing the potential for change again, but the lighting industry has yet to locate into a next collective region specifically and has spread out into numerous locations in Asia and around the globe.

“Today, lighting is about packaging technology for performance, efficiency, and integration into building systems. Form factors have changed to accommodate technology and creative potential has expanded in shape and scale with new materials and new fabricating processes.”

The business world has also evolved drastically over the course of Sonneman’s career, so much so that he cannot summarise it in its entirety. “The profound changes in the world of business over the last 60 years is too overwhelmingly huge in scope for me to address but I can certainly identify some of the evolutionary changes in doing business in our segment of the lighting industry.

“Aside from the overarching transactional digital technology that is universal to all business, lighting’s changes occurred in all the areas from conception to manufacturing and from sales and distribution through a local independent dealer network to online access to the world’s lighting products.

“Six decades ago, most lighting manufacturers fabricated their products in-house. Today, there are some who still do but many more that use foreign facilities to build their products. Lighting now exists in a global market, accessible online.

“Professionally, educationally, and creatively, we have grown and evolved as an industry to encompass new insight, technology, illuminating capabilities and applications that are expanding the world of lighting across new frontiers.

“Despite the universally dramatic changes and advancements, many things about the lighting industry remain in place and are consistently similar to the practices of past generations. We still rely on people to work with and build relationships with showrooms, architects, lighting designers, specifiers, and national clients. Great people with product knowledge, experience, talent, and commitment are still the essential element of success within the lighting industry.”

“Lighting is universally essential, creatively challenging, complex, and infinitely interesting. My father’s advice was “Find something that you love to do and do it well. Allow your passion to drive your ambition. It will become your life’s work and define your identity.”