Robert Sonneman: Modern Evolution - Design Bureau

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Robert Sonneman

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Robert Sonneman in his studio

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Orbiter lamp, 1967, in Sonneman’s studio


Quattro, 2013


Bel Air, 2013


Axes, 2013


Atelier, 2012


Vintage ad for Sonneman collection at Bloomingdale’s



Robert Sonneman: Modern Evolution

Friday, July 12th, 2013

By Elizabeth Hall
Portraits by Jonathan Pilkington

"I was 19, three days out of the navy, and I answered an ad for George Kovacs' lighting store. That's where I was awakened by the European notion of modernism." 

And so began Robert Sonneman’s modernist education. Three years later Sonneman started his own lighting line. Soon, the boy who was awed by European modernism would go on to redefine the genre for American audiences, designing and manufacturing lighting and home products for Macy’s, Stanley Furniture, and eventually overseeing home product development for the quintessential American brand, Ralph Lauren. A decade ago,  Sonneman returned to his lighting roots and launched Sonneman—A Way of Light to focus exclusively on contemporary lighting. After coming full circle in his nearly 50-year career, Sonneman reflects on how modernism shaped his designs and evolved into an American staple.

EH: How did modern lighting design come of age in America?
Robert Sonneman: The lighting industry was once locally based and essentially traditionally styled. The factories that populated the boroughs of industrial New York and the northeast were small, independent family operations that never looked beyond the American shores for market or production. When I began to make and sell lamp designs based upon the European functionalist modern aesthetic, it was an enigma to the mainstream. Although it received a great deal of notice and press interest, modern was a tough sell in the market.

EH: How has the lighting landscape changed since then?
RS: Today the paradigm has shifted. We travel the world for inspiration; we produce in Asia and our vision has turned to the innovative and contemporary genres. Lighting has evolved from burning fuel or filaments to providing electronic illumination, generating brightness, infinite color, and programmable control. We have only just begun to investigate, understand, and develop its possibilities.

EH: How has your take on modernism shifted?
RS: As a Mies disciple, I come from Bauhaus roots. But as contemporary architectural design has changed and morphed into several genres of style and points of view, I have also expanded my vision and perspective while adhering to the dogma of the original ‘industrial modern aesthetic.’ I learned color from the post-modernists, shape from the sculpturalists, and mixed metaphors from the deconstructionists and industrial revisionists. 

EH: How would you define the state of American modernism today?
RS: When I describe our brand and our product as ‘American cosmopolitan’ in style, I am describing the diversity of the American contemporary vision from the ‘industrial urban edge’ to ‘ornamental deco’ and from a ‘warm western contemporary’ feel to the streamlined sophistication and stark presence of pure modernism. American style is not rooted in a singular style or philosophy; it is diverse and eclectic.

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