Robert Sonneman, the Executive Chairman and Chief Creative Officer at SONNEMAN—A Way of Light, gives us the lowdown on all things lighting, Sonneman’s new projects, and what drives him today. From a showroom set to open in the spring of this year, to new and much-loved collections, lighting trends, and how technology is affecting the lighting of the future, we discuss it all.
Downtown: We heard a rumor you were opening up your first NYC Showroom at the New York Design Center. If this is true, please tell us when you expect to open and what made you decide to finally have your own space for designers to visit?
Robert Sonneman: What you have heard is true. Located at the New York Design Center at 200 Lex, we are excited to be opening this spring. The New York City showroom underscores SONNEMAN-A Way of Light’s vision for growth, increased visibility, and focus within the architectural and design community. The Design Center’s location is at the increasingly important epicenter of the design community, making it a clear choice.
Besides being a natural fit for us, after considering other city locations we recognized the value of being part of a design industry collective. The Design Center draws the attention of the design community to its powerful presence, and we wanted to be a part of that energy.
Downtown: What can visitors to your showroom expect to see?
Robert: SONNEMAN—A Way of Light has developed its broad range of capabilities and scope over decades of design and discovery. This showroom will present product design and innovation to the architecture and design community in a collaborative setting. We will present our product range—showcasing everything from fixtures to our scalable architectural systems—in a gallery-like setting. In addition we will have dedicated spaces for client project layouts and specifications. We will also be committing resources to advance product knowledge and to help communicate project-specific information with design professionals. The space will feature a hands-on “Suspenders Lab” where designers will be able to arrange custom configurations with the assistance of SONNEMAN team members. The showroom will also feature a regular rotation of CEU and ASID events as well as activations throughout the year. We aim to become a resource to the design community in regards to lighting, technology, and design knowledge.
Downtown: Tell us about your 2019 collection! When does it launch and what is currently new at Sonneman?
Robert: We have added over 350 new components to the award-winning Suspenders LED system, including 6’ and 8’ power bars, flush-mount solutions for low ceilings, and a new structural element that will allow stacked configurations to run on a dual circuit. We have also introduced nearly infinite options for the newly introduced Intervals System, expanding the initial launch to better serve commercial settings and hospitality spaces. Beyond the impressive number of introductions for our varied scalable systems, we have released a number of new decorative architectural families. These include a new Constellation titled ‘Aquarius’, the expansive Ballet fixture system of multiple poised tapered silhouettes, and the expandable OLA range of flowing linear elements whose soft profiles flow dramatically across a space.
Downtown: What are some of your favorite designs from the new collections and why?
Robert: Despite my tendency to look critically at previously completed designs in my search for how can we do it better, there are some designs that stand up to my scrutiny. The Truss system is one such design that expands the utility and architectural context of the growing Suspenders system. The Intervals beam system holds both the achievement of an architecturally scalable lighting system with multiple applications and the challenge to expand the utility, technology, and applications even further. OLA will open new paths for us to explore a softer approach to form development and an increased potential for new lighting utility.
Downtown: What do you think is the future of lighting?
Robert: Technology is driving lighting development and providing opportunities to reimagine its form and application. We are advantaged by the promise of commingling art with technology to envision new applications and utilities. Certainly miniaturization, color, optics, and controllability are the drivers of this fast evolving and exciting activity of science and the art of design. Lighting is a universal and essential element in any space, defining visibility and the emotional response to an environment. What is so exciting about the future is the integration of lighting technologies into the architecture and as a dynamic component of the building systems. This synthesis of electronically generated illumination within the built world will be essential to our perception and interaction within a space.
The lighting of the future will be defined by connectivity, integration, and controllability as a component of the digital age and of a broader environmental system. It is a critical component that can be adjusted to impact the emotional status of our wellbeing.
Downtown: Do you have an all-time favorite Sonneman design? Which is it and why?
Robert: My favorite design is…the next one. Design, like life, is a continuum—an odyssey, a journey of discovery. When I look at the designs along the path of my over half-a-century career, I see them in context to where I was at that point in time and whether or not it stands up to the core values of my design principals: functionality from simplicity. Design is evolutionary and only rarely revolutionary, so all of the designs must be measured in the context of the time of their development. Some I see and feel that we conceived a well-executed resolution to challenge and other times I wonder how I could have done that, that I should have done it better or not at all.
That said, if I were tasked with selecting just one, Orbiter most accurately reflects my design process. I designed the Orbiter when I was 23, which was shown briefly at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. The Orbiter celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and was recently 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, and an 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, including the scalable systems that have chartered our business forward, but that first piece came to define the origins of my point of view. It was obviously rooted in the Bauhaus idea of form from function.
Technology in the form of LED, electronically generated illumination, changed everything. It allowed us to reimagine form, scale, application, and utility. For me it was a rebirth of creative energy that drove the promise of innovation. I love working with technology but mostly the opportunity to work with the smart people that technology attracts. My work is a daily and continuous process of investigation for myself and the talented engineering and design team that we are building.
Downtown: What would you like designers to know about your brand?
Robert: SONNEMAN—A Way of Light is committed to Innovation From The Art of Technology. We are a design-driven company, rooted in our principals of design innovation, high quality, originality, and functional simplicity. We will continue to strive with passion for design innovation and a view toward what’s next.
Downtown: Who is a designer you would love to work with and why?
Robert: I cannot limit the desire to work with a designer to only one. Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Mies Van der Rohe. For me, architecture is the root and the basis of my design thought. There are so many giants of architectural design thinking, and I could happily live engaged in the argument, challenges, and the defense of an architectural design vision that makes, “Architecture the battleground of the soul.”
Downtown: In your five decades designing lighting, what has been your favorite experience to date?
Robert: My life has been so blessed with the challenges, struggles, efforts, and rewards of a life in design. Although best known for lighting, I have worked in other disciplines as well. I controlled my destiny and rose and fell at my own hand. Having the opportunity to travel the world at on a regular basis, working, searching, questioning, discovering, and learning, I don’t know if I could choose a favorite because I have been rewarded by so many. I do know that discovery and finding the answer in the creative process continues to give me a high and a sense of accomplishment that never diminishes and continues to drive me forward. My favorite experience is achieving that accomplishment collaboratively. I guess at the end of the day it’s all about people, and I know that my favorite experience is definitely the next one.