deborah berke







1. You have a very hands-on artistic background in sculpture. What effect do you think that has on the overall aesthetic of the Robert Abbey brand?

Working as a sculptor has given me a fluency with simple forms that I bring to my designs for Robert Abbey. The best lighting combines sculptural beauty with function.

2. Is there a story about how you transitioned from sculpture to lighting design? 

At the heart of my story is a lucky intersection of disciplines. Upon graduating from RISD and returning to NY, I gravitated to stage lighting jobs with a number of now-famous musicians. I became fascinated by the dynamics of light. Working in small venues gave me technical expertise and creative opportunities.

3. Is there a particular way that you think your training as a sculptor has influenced your lighting design? 

As a sculptor, I have been preoccupied with architecture, the power of placement, and the spaces between objects—subject to light transmitted from apertures in curtained walls. Whether I am designing one lamp or a whole room, these preoccupations guide me.

4. What is it about lighting design that motivates you?

I am motivated by the way light resonates to define our perception of the physical realm.

5. You have a very rich past, working with stage lighting for some exceptional musical artists and fashion designers. Can you give us any insights into what it is like working with other artists and designers on projects like that? 

Artist and designers are very aware of the ways that lighting can reinforce their work. I’ve worked with Run DMC/Beastie Boys, Marianne Faithfull, Philip Glass and others, many of whom were my inspiration, directors, and teachers. What a gold mine to have worked with so many huge talents.

6. How did you move from setting the lighting for the burgeoning 80’s NY music scene to lighting for Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys and Ralph Lauren? Were the two worlds more similar than one might think? 

Lighting live-entertainment sets and lighting merchandise displays require similar hardware, technical applications and maneuvers. However, the experiences are worlds apart. One is kinetic discharge through music performance, and the other is quiet, still life. The common thread is how the light is rendered and experienced. When Stephen Sprouse encouraged me to submit my work to the creative director of Bergdorf Goodman, after 8 years lighting thousands of live shows, I moved on to product presentation and interiors. At that time I also went back to my artwork and started creating lamp fixtures for my studio in the Adirondacks.

7. We read on your site that the Monk lamp was created because you needed a light for your own use. Did you ever think that one light would seemingly send you down this path

No! I created that lamp for my own studio. When HG Magazine did a photo editorial on that studio, a rural elementary school building my wife Heloisa Zero and I converted, people spotted that lamp, and the rest is history.


8. What persons or influences have had the strongest impact on your design style or thinking? 

I have followed the careers of numerous artist and designers. Most influential were Louie Khan, James Turrell and Richard Kelly. I love the work of Isabel Toledo. James Carpenter remains my best teacher. 

9. You went to the Rhode Island School of Design. Do you have a lesson or ethos that you took away from that experience that has stuck with you?

Yes! Act in faith on the visions of your creative-mind's eye. Those who make it act as if. Lower your expectations and increase your performance.

10. Do you have a particular project or design that stands out as particularly satisfying to you?

The Marina table touchier (named after my daughter, now 16) has been in continuous production and demand since 1996. This product is directly derived from blown glass vessels I started making at RISD in 1974, work influenced by Thurman Statom and James Carpenter.  

11. Sustainability is an important topic in any industry right now. What are your and Robert Abbey’s thoughts regarding sustainability? 

I do not believe in or design disposable, trend-driven products. As consumers, we have to move away from this wasteful paradigm. Robert Abbey products are very well made from permanant materials that, with care, can last forever. The company is ready for the day when the industry shifts from incandescent to LED lamps. I already use LED par lamps in our showroom presentations and my art studio upstate.

12. There seem to be subtle references to the jazz age coming through your designs. Was that intentional?

I've been a devotee of modern jazz among other forms of music. My favorite musician is Keith Jarrett.  As a teenager, I accompanied one of my friends, Gregory Flowers, to visit his cousin near Lincoln Center. I later realized that we visited Thelonious Monk.

13. How do you think your designs speak to people? What kind of effect do you hope they have on the people who experience them?

My intention is to produce designs that are sculptural, essential, utilitarian yet sensorial. Our brand at Robert Abbey is recognized for quality at prices accessible to consumers. 

14. If you had any advice to give on what you think good design is, what would it be? 

I'm not much on advice. Trust your instincts and design your truth

15. When Jeffery and Darlene Rose came calling, did you imagine that all these years later you would be an essential component in the Robert Abbey aesthetic? 

Not really, but I am grateful for the opportunity to work in this context, to do what I love and be appreciated.

16. We can’t wait to see what comes next. Would you be willing to give us any insights into what is inspiring you right now or what direction you might be heading in, in the future?

Several collections of mine are in development at Robert Abbey for future launch. The Adirondack Collection was just introduced at the International Home Furnishings Conference. It is inspired by elegant handcrafted wooden patterns for machinery parts my studio acquired some years ago. The workmanship and beauty of these antique shapes from the upstate NY leather industry infuse the collection.
In addition, I am tweaking several, modular LED fixture collections that I would love to launch for the contract market. I have also been working on furniture product. Della Robbia USA has contracted with me to produce an upholstery line that we just introduced at the IHFC. The Venus and Olympia are sleeper sofas that have “International” looks and functionality.
I am looking forward to introducing a native hardwoods brand made in Vermont.
On a personal note, Heloisa and I dream of building the house in Brasilia that we designed. •

Read the edited interview on the YLighting website >