Robert Sonneman, "Lighting's Modern Master", pioneered contemporary lighting making it 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 Robert's lighting designs have become classics of the modern era.
Born and raised in New York City, Robert Sonneman displayed a keen interest in art at an early age. He studied art at the Rhodes School, took life classes at the Art Students League, and as a student became a member of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.
Three days out of the Navy, at the age of nineteen, Robert answered an ad to work as the sole employee in a lighting store, called George Kovacs. Sonneman was introduced to the European minimal modern perspective, from the Bauhaus industrialism to the sensuality of the Danish modern forms. While finishing his senior year at LIU, Sonneman started a lighting factory for Kovacs, designing and building a line of lamps based on the sensibilities he had developed, before leaving to found his own factory a few years later.
With an ever-present curiosity and hunger to discover new insights, Robert acquired the skills to draw and engineer the products he created. His first products were functional and mechanically-based designs, like the Orbiter® Lamp that is still in production today.
His designs became, and continue to be, recognized and acclaimed by the design community, museums, and major retailers.
His works have been exhibited in museums including: the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York; Contemporary Arts Museum 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. In addition, Robert Sonneman has participated in the Stanford Forum on Design and served on the design advisory board of the Nissan Motor Corp.
As a working designer, Robert 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 today's architectural sculpturalism.
American Contemporary Style is broadly diverse, crossing over several genres from modern's original machine aesthetic to a more comfortable, individually centric expressive style. "I continue to investigate the evolutionary and the revolutionary as the basis for developing a cosmopolitan American style."
In the following years, Sonneman studied and worked in architecture and industrial design until his practice became overwhelmed with product design projects. Lighting was always an important area in Sonneman's design practice. Subtleties of the architectural discipline are evident throughout his design experience.
"Those of my era were all trained as Miesian disciples and believed in the pathos of minimalism.
Less was always more. I loved the clarity of the point of view of modernism. I connected with the designs of Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and other Bauhaus disciples. I was driven by the industrial design of Porsche and Braun and Knoll, and architecture from Mies to Pei to Kahn to Meier to Gehry."
Having spent several years developing product as CEO of Ralph Lauren Home Product Development, Robert gained insight to a richly eclectic, broad range of style and grew to become a modernist with a historical sensibility. Robert understood that it was critical to develop insight with classical design, art, and traditional architecture as a basis for understanding the genesis of the modern movement.
"I am driven by what's next. I am curious and challenged and excited to discover the odyssey that is design."
Lighting is infinitely interesting and incredibly challenging on many levels. Lighting requires knowledge in design, manufacturing, materials, and process, with technical and mechanical expertise across a broad range of activities, including a deep commitment to technology.
Working every day with a team of dedicated young people, eager to learn and anxious to invent their futures, Sonneman continues to push the boundaries of design and innovation. The vision is limitless and the discipline of executing well-designed product is demanding... but it is what we love to do.