Founder and CEO of RockPaperRobot (RPR), a design and engineering firm specializing in kinetic furniture and lighting, Jessica Banks is an inventor, engineer, and entrepreneur with an Engineer’s and Master’s degree from MIT, where she was in the Humanoid Robotics Group within the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. Yes, this is no ordinary furniture designer, she is a true Maker and creative hybrid, creating furniture at the intersection of physics, hi-tech and total awe.
Her work also includes projects involving global initiatives, viable products for international corporations, and robotic design for Frank Gehry and Michel Gondry. However, her impressive educational background and professional experiences only give us a small glimpse into the brilliant mind of this humble Wisconsin native. Oh, and she also happens to have amazing peripheral vision from an old eye injury (now healed) that damaged her corneas. However, an eye injury wasn’t needed for Banks to see the world on a quantum level.
Photo: RockPaperRobot – Jessica Banks
Video: Tech Times
Inspired by robotics, physics principles, engineering and the driving forces of how the world works – Banks’ capricious creations inspire feelings of awe and expand the functional versatility of conventional furniture design. From magnetized cubes and robotic chandeliers to floating tables and transformable furniture, RPR mixes whimsical and interactive designs with functional, progressive engineering and classic physics. Or, as a recent description of her work states: think creative icon and designer Charles Eames’s and Judy Jetson’s wedding registry. But these creations are only the beginning of a much bigger story and plan.
Video: Rock Paper Robot – Float Table
I had a chance to interview Jessica about her Floating Furniture Collection as well as RPR’s newest Ollie Collection. But even more importantly, we discussed the game-changing direction Jessica Banks plans to take her company and designs, and how she hopes RPR’s inventions mixed with advanced technology can truly change the way we interact with the objects around us.
VS: Why did you start creating these furniture pieces? What inspires you?
JB: I don’t think of myself as a furniture designer, but as an inventor, a roboticist, and an engineer. Obviously, part of that is my background at MIT, but another part is due to who I am as a person. I always wanted to be an astronaut and that was my plan growing up. I’m just fascinated by the driving forces behind how the world and universe work: how water moves and the capillary actions involved in the process; I’m fascinated by shadows and the fact that there’s a huge star in the galaxy impacting how we view ourselves when we look down at the dark image that follows us.
These may seem like little things, but that’s what amazes and inspires me: the balance of our utter insignificance and our total significance. But honestly, there’s really no romanticism in why I create the pieces I do – it’s just an extension of my curiosity of things.
VS: Describe how the Floating Table works and more about the Float Collection.
JB: I decided to use metal cubes with repelling magnets (250 of them) to hold their form in a structure that gives it a gravity defying effect. Steel cables link the cubes together and allow slight movement under pressure, while the magnetic force allows the cubes to repeatedly spring back into line. The collection of float tables and shelves are inspired by this design.
VS: Just viewing the RPR video on the Float table blew my mind. What do you want people to feel when interacting with your pieces?
JB: I want people to touch my Float Table and be like – whoa – what was that? How did that happen? That immediate reaction is what sparks child-like wonder. I love that.
Photo: RockPaperRobot/Facebook – Jessica Banks demonstrating the magic of the Float Table.
VS: Tell me about the evolution of RockPaperRobot.
JB: Initially, I was creating all my pieces by hand. As my ideas and products took off, I realized I couldn’t do it alone. In order to bring my vision to a broader market, I had to form a company. But a part of me felt kind of selfish because I was bringing other people into my dream. And I’m more of a freelancer and don’t feel comfortable as a high-end product maker. I’m still working through this inner conflict. However, after forming the LLC, I realized that what RPR is doing is far greater than just a few pieces of kinetic furniture. This company was sharing a dream together and a vision for a bigger future and that’s exciting.
VS: The Ollie Collection. How is it different from the Float pieces?
JB: I realized if I was going to venture into mass production and create furniture that everyone can use, I needed to expand my collection as well as replicate pieces easily and effectively. The Float Collection is more representative of kinetic statement pieces used to inspire. However, the Ollie Collection is for everyone, especially those with minimal space. The Ollie Chair is ergonomically designed but it also features an interchangeable surface that collapses with a pull string. The Ollie Table is mounted to a wall and extends out to different lengths, anything from a small desk to a large table. When you’re not using it, the surface hangs against the wall – like a piece of art. Every piece can be customized.
Photo: RPR – The Ollie Table
Video: RPR – Ollie Collection
The Future of RPR:
VS: What can we expect next from RockPaperRobot?
JB: We want to keep inventing furniture and objects that create awe and wonder, to transformational, interactive pieces that everyone can use and then to the genetic mutation of the evolution of décor that reacts to human behavior and activities.
VS: Can you explain this evolution and your thoughts behind it?
JB: RPR has tripled in size and our hope is to increase our output 1000 fold over this year. We’re preparing for larger-scale manufacturing to create many pieces that embody the idea of the genetic mutation of decor. An example of this can be seen in our robotic chandelier. It responds to the environment, so it automatically expands when you have a big party and contracts when you’re having an intimate gathering. It responds to your behaviors, your activities. This is a small example of a much larger movement RPR has in mind.
Photo: RPR Robotic Gleam Chandelier
VS: What projects are you specifically working on to achieve this bigger movement?
JB: Many of our inventions are “under wraps” right now. However, what we’re trying to achieve is to bridge the gap between quantified biological data from things like wearables and trackers and the Internet of things (IoT). We want to take an object – like an office chair, and have this object respond in real time to your activities, movements, and behaviors and actually use this data to then tell you what to do in order to prevent things like injury or chronic back pain. To have it tell the user something like, “you need to increase lumbar support to prevent lower back injury.” One thing I can mention is that we are currently in talks with a major hospital right now discussing the design of a wheelchair that actually responds to human comfort levels.
VS: That’s amazing. Tell us more about the idea behind such an invention.
JB: I started thinking about how can the things around me react to my behaviors and activities. Right now our objects, wearables, and tech gadgets can’t actually change us. Right now, all we have is the information they give us (some useful, some not) and then it’s up to us to do anything with it. Maybe we loose a few pounds or we see that our blood pressure is high – but other than that – we tend not to know what else to do with the data. We want to bridge the gap between technology, objects, and humans so that we work together and respond to each other. Connecting people to the important objects around them, and then for those objects to be connected to each other and ultimately, they are all interconnected – helping each other, working together.
After our conversation – I set my cell phone down, looked around my office, and contemplated how objects and humans need to develop a better relationship. That’s what Jessica does – she makes you pause, reflect, and look at the world around you in a way that is truly out of the box – or triangle or hexagon or polygon…well, you get the idea. As the famous, Charles Eames once said:
Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects…
The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.
If Charles were alive today, he and Jessica would have been two creative hybrids rocking the world of invention. However, Jessica and her team at RockPaperRobot are currently doing a pretty stellar job at rocking the hell out of creating new designs ranging from kinetic jewelry and fashion wearables all the way to other mind-blowing pieces of furniture and everyday objects. What’s coming down the pipeline is sure to permanently change the way we respond to the things around us or as Jessica states, “RPR wants our products to touch people viscerally.” For more information on RockPaperRobot and their products visit their webpage and social networks: