Maker Monday: An ASPIRE Exclusive Interview With Robert Sonneman

Today’s #MakerMonday is the founder of eponymous SONNEMAN and lighting pioneer, Robert Sonneman. “Lighting’s Modern Master,” Sonneman has had a hand in popularizing functional modernism in lighting, revolutionizing the industry. This week, he talks about expanding time, contemplative space, and the importance of introspective processes.

An elegant shower of light illuminates this stunning staircase with a soft touch.

Andrew Joseph: Describe your design style as if you were explaining it to someone who cannot see.
Robert Sonneman: I design modern lighting products that produce the brightness of illumination on objects and surfaces that are near them. My modern minimal style is called functional modernism, which means that the functionality and mechanical actions determine the shapes and overall composition of the object. Run your hand along the object and feel the smoothness of the shape; Feel the connection between the round supporting element and the point where it joins a rotatable shape that is mechanically attached. Hopefully, you will envision the simplicity of elements that come together as a cleanly composed union to form the utility of an object. It is in that simplicity and clarity of purpose from which the aesthetic value is achieved. The object speaks from the honestly present elements of functionality without concealment behind decorative adornment.

Andrew: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
Robert: Money can’t buy it, power can’t create it, strength can’t extend it, time is the ultimate dimension that shapes destiny. Only when fathomed in the context of infinite space against the lifespan of an insect on earth can relative boundaries of time be imagined. Life, years, months, days, hours minutes, seconds, is an arbitrary index of human creation to measure the phenomenon of time. If there were an ultimate superpower it would be the ability or power to compress or extend time. But even that power would likely exist only in relative terms. So the ultimate power would be the ability to compress the experience within time to the expanded scope, achievement, and fulfillment of accomplishment within the limits of human time. If time cannot be expanded then what we do with our time could be accomplished with less, leaving us with more.

Understated orbs of light activate this wall in clean, thoughtful lines.

Andrew: What would your dream project or dream client be right now?
Robert: I have always wanted to build an open space building based upon the Mies Glass House, ultimately built by Philip Johnson. I want to design and build an open contemplative space for reflection, imagination, creative activity, and Zen-like introspection. I see a beautifully simple structure of parallel beams, supporting a glass curtain wall, spanning the distance of the elevation and supporting the plane of a flat roof from edge to edge. The glass walls that enclose are color-changing from clear to black. During my career in design and passion for architecture, I have cherished the times that I was able to work undisturbed in a quiet space indulging in my imagination and investigation of a creative challenge. This introspective quiet time has been somewhat limited in the context of building our growing modern lighting company. Now, as I look toward what’s next, I have always contemplated arriving at a place that would allow me unrestricted time for study, investigation and creative exploration. A time without deadlines and performance under pressure, driven by curiosity, the fulfillment of learning and the desire to deliver great work for only me as the client. This is my ultimate dream that will, with luck and good fortune, become my reality.

Andrew: Best advice you’d give your teenage self?
Robert: My father once advised me to: “find something that you love to do and do it well, the money will take care of itself.” I would add to that…PREPARE! Take advantage of every opportunity to educate, enrich, and experience all that interests you or that you think might support your vision of your future self. A drummer in the band…Learn music; Artist…Learn to paint; and in all things, read. The experience is introspective and the information can be transformative. Above all, don’t cut off the educational opportunities before you must. Learn all that you can about what you are curious about. It is hard or maybe impossible to revisit later on life’s journey.

This masterful lighting fixture crawls across the wall with sophistication – free from contrivance.

Andrew: How would you define your work in three words?
Robert: Clean, functional, straight-forward.

Andrew: How do you define beauty?
Robert: Beauty for me is defined by the qualities of being simply elegant and refined with clarity of purpose and free from contrivance.

About The Maker | Robert Sonneman, “Lighting’s Modern Master,” pioneered modern lighting in the 1960s and ‘70s, making it an art form. Sonneman has been at the forefront of modern design for five decades, and his award-winning designs have become classics of the Modern era. Inspired by modern architecture, applying the functionalist discipline of Bauhaus, Sonneman introduced a modernist aesthetic to lighting in the mid-1960s. He challenged old dictums and revolutionized an industry. He combined form with function in innovative ways, and introduced new forms and function, creating dramatic contemporary designs that make… SONNEMAN – A Way of Light.

Robert Sonneman’s works have been exhibited in museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York; the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry; the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; St. Louis Design Center; the Southwest Museum of Science and Technology; and the Saskatchewan Science Museum, 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 advisory board of the Nissan Motor Corp. Sonneman is the recipient of many honors for is innovative work including the Red Dot Design Award, Top Pick at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show, and the Home Magazine American Furniture Award.

Andrew Joseph is a regular contributing editor for ASPIRE DESIGN AND HOME magazine. See more of his work here

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