After Decades of Innovation, Sonneman Keeps Pushing Lighting Design Ahead
A lifetime student of modernism, Robert Sonneman finds ever new creative possibilities in pursuit of lighting design perfection.
Founder of his namesake company, designer Robert Sonneman has been on the cutting edge of lighting design for the past five decades—and he’s using technology to create his most exciting collections yet. “Today, technology lets us approach things completely differently than 10 or 20 years ago,” says Sonneman. “It’s allowing us to push the envelope of what we can imagine and develop.”
Sonneman has been innovating since he was only 21, when he created lights with legendary designer George Kovacs. Over the ensuing decades, he continued to produce award-winning lights through his own company. “The minimalism of Bauhaus Modernism is at the core of everything I’ve designed,” Sonneman says of his pared-back, sleek aesthetic. His vintage lights have since become highly sought-after, and his pieces have been displayed in museums and galleries internationally.
Now, “he’s like a kid in a candy store,” says Christian Garnett, Director of Engineering for SONNEMAN. “With new opportunities and technology, it’s almost like we’re starting over.” Perhaps nowhere is this better captured than SONNEMAN’s innovation around LED lighting, used in 95% of its recent products.
In prior decades, incandescent lighting was the norm for the industry. “It was the same for 100 years. It was very limiting,” says Garnett. This type of bulb produces heat at the source, so designers had to contain or divert heat using large volumes for shading and materials such as steel and brass.
LEDs, however, produce a beam of light that’s focused. And since LEDs are smaller and do not themselves become hot, they are more easily integrated into minimalist designs and lighter aluminum shapes. SONNEMAN customizes its lighting engines in unique combinations of diodes, driver, heat sinks, and optics, allowing for more flexibility in application and form. Yet rather than focusing on pure functionality, Sonneman is driven to “make art, to create products with a quality and character that’s recognizable,” says Ryan Pauly, Director of Design. This results in projects like Constellation, a new sculptural collection with elegant lines inspired by sticks tossed together, and Votives™, a collection that evokes the feeling of candles scattered throughout a space—both of which are innovative in form and in function.
Advances in production have also pushed the company forward. Though Sonneman still starts by drawing images on paper and in CAD, he and his team then model the designs using computers, 3-D printers, and 2-D carvers. “Making everything this way really helps us understand how to build systems,” says Pauly. New manufacturing tools, rather than the old techniques of bending and polishing by hand, also result in more consistent quality. This allows for the ability to scale up, reflecting architectural modules, in which components can be added together infinitely. Thus when a client recently asked for the clean geometric lines of Tik-Tak™ to fill an atrium, the design team was able to create a suspended, 40-foot custom installation within that space.
So what can customers expect from the company in the near future? “Our new lighting reinvents scale, minimizes elements and simplifies form. It’s more sophisticated, dramatic and technologically advanced, and we continue to investigate, grow our insight, and expand our skills in infinitely new ways,” says Sonneman. “We’re always asking how we can make things better – perform better, look better and produce better. Driven by passion for our craft, we are immersed in the process of innovation by design.”