This story was originally published in Architectural Lighting.

Courtesy Sonneman
“Nobody has an exclusive on creativity.”
—Robert Sonneman

With family roots in the lighting business, Robert Sonneman has spent his entire professional career—close to 50 years—working with light and designing luminaires. After finishing military service at the age of 19, he answered an ad in The New York Times for a lighting store. The store was George Kovacs Lighting, which opened in 1954. Sonneman worked for Kovacs, while completing his college education at Long Island University, and helped Kovacs open his factory, design the product line, and launch his business. By the time he was 23, Sonneman decided to start his own lighting company. Over the years, Sonneman has developed and sold multiple lighting businesses, but through it all, his core focus has always been design and the creative process.

What is it that fascinates you about light?
Lighting is an infinitely interesting and incredibly challenging field and it requires broad knowledge of design, manufacturing, and materials in both mechanical and technical [forms] and now, electronic technology. You are dealing with such a broad range of materials, processes, and manufacturing experiences.

Do you have a design or a lighting philosophy?
I am a modernist at my core. I have always looked to create an interesting functional approach to a lighting challenge or to a mechanical challenge.

What, in your mind, makes a great piece of lighting equipment?
It is about performance, simplicity, and mechanical perfection; it is how well you can achieve functionality with superb execution.

What do you consider innovation in lighting?
LEDs have changed everything. It has made the unachievable, achievable. For me, it is a rebirth. I spent quite a bit of time, almost two years, just trying to learn about the technology of LEDs and how to apply it to our work. It is driving our design and it has enabled us to achieve a scale and a form that was not possible before LED.

How do you maintain product quality when the technology itself is changing every six months or faster?
It is actually easier. We manufacture our own boards and we design very specific lenses and reflectors for the application for which we are using it. It is easier to maintain quality because not only is the technology so advanced, but also everything is automated.

What are the current challenges of working with LED technology?
Integration is the key to lighting science. What is much more challenging than the LED itself, is control. Electronically managed information, communication, and entertainment includes quality, color, and intensity of mood and of illumination. It is all a synchronous component of a smart controlled environment. That is our next challenge: How do we take this electronic [medium] and expand it into the architectural universe in scale. It is not about a lighting fixture, per se; it is about making a matrix that you can take into any scale at any level, unrestricted by the kinds of limitations we [previously] had in conventional wiring and electronics.

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