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Behind the Design with Robert Sonneman

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A clean, modern, and distinctively simple collection from contemporary lighting pioneer Robert Sonneman.

SHOP ATELIER COLLECTION

 

A Q&A with Robert Sonneman

Interview by Sarah Schaale

Since 1967, Robert Sonneman has helped to pioneer modern lighting as an art form with his world-famous designs. Inspired and driven by a fascination with architecture and design, Sonneman's work is anchored by an infinite curiosity and desire to create innovative products for the home. His latest introduction, the Atelier Collection, is a sleek and seductively modern addition to the Sonneman Lighting line.

How did you get into
designing lighting?

In 1961, upon returning
from the Navy and
while attending
college, I worked as
the sole employee of
the George Kovacs a
retail lighting and
accessories store on
Madison Ave in NYC.
George was importing and retailing European
modern lighting. That experience introduced me to
world of modernism and modern design which
captured my attention and my imagination. I had studied
art as a young student growing up in New York. A few years later the George Kovacs lighting business needed to create a lighting line. In so doing, I found myself creating modern lamps and began to emerge as
a designer.

That is the difference between art, which is produced for
its own sake, and professional design, which must succeed
on many levels including functionality, manufacturability
and salability.

  • Atelier Chandelier by Sonneman

    With the Sonneman Atelier Chandelier, you are the artist that creates the ideal configuration of light. Each of its arms swivels around the main stem, allowing you to arrange the exposed uplight and downlight at either end any way you'd like. A stablizing bar on the bottom keeps the Atelier steady when moving the arms.

    Sonneman A Way of Light is the namesake of founder and lighting designer Robert Sonneman. It was formed to create contemporary lighting that best exemplifies today's cosmopolitan American style. Sonneman Lighting fixtures are elegant and refined, decidedly modern yet clearly influenced by classic 20th century period styles.

  • Atelier Wall Sconce by Sonneman

    In modern dining rooms and living rooms, the Sonneman Atelier Wall Sconce is a real work of art. It is at once industrial and graceful, with three slim curved arms that swivel independently around the base stem. The Satin Black finish provides deep, dramatic contrast to the warm gleam of the exposed bulbs.

What's your design process like?
My design process has developed over a lifetime of experience and education to move through very well-defined stages. The process begins with conceptualizing the vision for a product line or series. In fact, it never ends, and simply becomes more vigorous at the start of a cycle. I am always reading books and magazines, searching trade shows, visiting locations, stores, museums, restaurants, hotels and searching out interesting areas in various cities. I have always worked in NY, Milan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris but I have found that it is it is more about the emotional stimulation and the mental space than the location. I have found that when I begin to form a feeling or impression, it is best for me to stop that ethereal odyssey and get my concept sketches and drawings down on paper while the emotional response is still fresh. I might go through 10 or 20 different points of view before I finally move through the ideation to the development phase.

What's important to you in design?
Design is a creative, emotional, technical and economic activity. That is the difference between art, which is produced for its own sake, and professional design, which must succeed on many levels including functionality, manufacturability and salability. Everything about design is important to me, but it is most rewarding and most successful when it has a clarity of point of view and delivers functionality free from contrivance.

Where do you find inspiration?
I am often asked how I get inspiration, but for me, it's impossible not to. Inspiration for me is everywhere but without a doubt, rooted in architecture. I regard architecture as the most lofty realization of high art, and I am inspired and uplifted by the dramatic rendition of architecture in its most creative form. Apple devices and packaging, to autos, motorcycles, air frames, simple Scandinavian tabletop objects, all help to form and inspire me. I am enthralled by the talent of industrial, graphic and interior designers creations. I also draw vision from the classical of earlier eras. It is not so much the period, but more the context in which it was created and the attitude that helped that form its point of view that stimulates me to try to understand what it is that the artist, sculptor, architect was thinking and how he came to the realization of his vision. I love great simple interiors of dramatic scale and balanced proportions. Finally I am infinitely curious about the talent and work of others and am inspired by the sparks of creative originality.

As a designer, are there design "mistakes" that make you cringe?
I detest poor quality and contrivance. I detest the attempt to conceal poor work through the application of ornamentation. I hate "uninspired" copying. I can live with inspiration from others but not a poor copy of and a bad attempt at duplicating others' work. Inspiration from others' design is the basis for teaching, learning and building a movement, but bad copying is just lazy and bad.

Do you have any role models in design?
My respect and admiration for designers is extensive. It all starts with the architects and designers in the modern era, from 1900 through the 1980s. From Joseph Hoffman of the Wiener Werkstatte, to Charles Rennie Macintosh of the Glasgow Scottish school through the Bauhaus industrial modernists. Mies van der Rohe, LeCorbisier and Marcel Breuer, post modernists like Michael Graves, the sculptural genius of Frank Gehry, have formed the modern Pathos. Not to mention, industrial designer/architects like: Castiglioni, Colombo, Barragan, Wright, Rams, Noguchi, Jacobsen, Foster, Alto, Porsche and Sapper. There are of course numerous others, but I think I, like most designers of my period, was most formed by the Bauhaus influence.

What does your own home look like?
My home is contemporary. Black slate, black wood and black carpet floors with super white walls and modern furniture. The theme is very homogeneous throughout. The dining table is a 10' stainless steel, disc finished slab with Metro Ribber chairs and bright blue seats. We are missing lighting fixtures and lamps. We have lots of built-in lighting and need to add sconces, lamps and fixtures but every time I need to pick something to bring home, I somehow prefer to wait for whatever it is that I am working on for the next line. I like the feeling of not being quite done and still having a creative element missing; it is like living in a work in progress so there is still room for change and discovery. Maybe I will bring home some new lighting from the things that we are developing...as soon as they are ready.

If you could design anything, it would be ____________?
I have had the opportunity to design or be a part of the design of architecture, appliances, furniture, domestics, cars, watches and of course, lighting. What I liked most about architecture and furniture was working in bigger scale. Doing coffee

makers, toasters and blenders had its moments, but it was very constrained in terms of the client requirements, material selection and room for breaking new creative ground. Somehow whatever else I get to work on, I am drawn back to and challenged most by lighting.

What can you tell us about the Atelier collection and how that design came about?
I saw this new, old world looking T8 bulb and I thought it was great. It saw old and new in a smaller scale which said to me...use me in multiples. How would you cross over the historic references with a modern pathos and point of view? The answer for me was the urban loft--the great iron industrial buildings in downtown New York. with the huge windows and black fire escapes against the white limestone facades. How would you place the industrial aesthetic in the center of the large white, high tined ceiling space of a 1900s industrial building that had become a living space? Atelier's black iron arms, which move from symmetrical to asymmetrical poises and in so doing require positioning a counter balance to keep it centered. But don't hide the imbalance--glorify it with the presence of an obvious dynamic weight that must be set against the imbalance of the random poses possible from the variety of differing arm lengths, to form a sculpture that alters its presence by perspective, line of sight and positioning.

Do you have a favorite lighting fixture from your collection?
I do not have favorites for a very long time. I have things that I like better than others, but I am always interested in what's next. My attention is on what to create, more that on what has been created.