May 1, 2018
Designer of Iconic ’60s and ’70s Lighting, Robert Sonneman Is Still Producing Striking New Fixtures
After years spent working on other projects—including a stint at Ralph Lauren Home—Sonneman has happily spent the past 15 years back in the lighting industry.
Robert Sonneman has been in the lighting business for over five decades—and even more, if you count his early industry exposure as a youth. A born-and-bred New Yorker, Sonneman, who turned 75 in February, was raised by parents who manufactured “traditional lighting and normal lamps,” as he calls them. He worked his first job as an extra hand in the lighting shop of designer and importer George Kovacs, and the two later partnered, when Sonneman was only 21, to produce original lines.
It was during this time in the late 1960s and ’70s that Sonneman created his iconic, zeitgeist-capturing works: lamps with names like Orbiter and Odyssey, featuring orblike heads and tubular arms and necks, and pendants and sconces made from glass disks that seemed to float like flying saucers. Despite the accolades that followed, Sonneman continued to identify as an entrepreneur. “I had a business background and I understood the business of it,” he says. “It wasn’t design for design’s sake.”
After years spent freewheeling through Milan and Tokyo, forays into architectural work, and a stint as CEO of product development for Ralph Lauren Home, Sonneman has happily spent the past 15 years back in the lighting industry. As lead designer of his own brand, he has focused on architecturally scalable designs, including the new Constellation and Tik-Tak collections, which operate as systems rather than singular, sculptural pieces.
Despite his Bauhaus and Modernist sensibilities, the septuagenarian remains relatively unsung in the canon of his peers and rejects comparisons to other lighting giants. That standing has begun to change in recent years, at least among collectors, who’ve taken a liking to his vintage spaceage designs, which fetch anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on auction sites like 1stdibs and Chairish.
But Sonneman is nonplussed by—and even skeptical of—the renewed recognition. “To me, once it’s done, it’s over,” he says. “My mind is not on that; my head is not there. It’s always been about what’s next.”
You may also enjoy “Lighting Designer Suzan Tillotson on the Challenges of LEDs, Urban Lighting, and More.”