RockPaperRobot Brings Engineering Know-how to Furniture Design

Float Table image courtesy RockPaperRobot

Table the Motion

RockPaperRobot is an engineering and design firm with one big difference – founder Jessica Banks was a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Humanoid Robotics Group when she left to launch the company. The result is some seriously otherworldly furniture, among them, the Float table – composed of a matrix of apparently hovering cubes; the Brag Collection – a diamond as big as the Ritz (or a coffee table, at least) balanced on its point; and a moving chandelier that’s responsive to the environment. We talked with Banks about going from hard science to soft sell, the problem with the “Internet of Things”, and her forthcoming mass market play from her space in Brooklyn Navy Yard’s New Lab.

Wakefield: You studied physics in undergrad, you’ve got an engineering and Master’s degree from MIT… How did you end up here?

Jessica Banks: I have always been interested in making things. But when I was at MIT I learned how to machine, and that was a total rebirth of wonder for me – it was like being reintroduced to my hands again. And when I realized I could machine metal, which was completely impenetrable solid material, it was a game changer. I could make, or break, or invent anything.

W: So RockPaperRobot officially became a business in 2009? What was that moment where you realized you could pursue this full time?

JB: I still ask that question! It was more ‘I have to do this and I have to figure out what it means to do something professionally’… I had a partner back then… Neither of us was business people, and we got totally burnt out and we didn’t have any marketing skills. We basically ran ourselves into the ground trying to put out product… The company went dormant for a while. I got a job at an experiential ad company and worked there for a year. Finally I decided to go back and start [the company] up again.

W: Was the Float table your first product?

JB: Yes, though we’ve only really been selling it for the last year and a half, because when we started up the company we had no money to build product. We did a bunch of ad and branding jobs, and I realize now that was a waste of time because it was distracting. Even though it got money in the bank, I probably could have spent my own money and gotten here faster.

W: You’re a team of five now, and expanding. Tell me about your plans for growth.

JB: We are trying to increase our output a thousand fold… over the next year. Of course, it’s easy to double in size when you only have two people. But in order to start mass manufacturing, that means bringing a team to handle production and also do the marketing around those products.

W: Your site describes your aesthetic as “Charles Eames meets the Jetsons.” I really like that.

JB: It’s funny that when people think about the future of décor, how we use our interior spaces, it’s always devoid of any warmth. As if there is some technology brush that obliterated all sense of that visceral feeling and the ownership of something beautiful… Nothing has evolved, or they have evolved into these completely antiseptic devices, almost appliances. So we strike a balance between the appliance and the beautiful object.

W: Is the “Internet of Things” appealing to you?

JB: The “Internet of Things” is very much about B2B – how to make business more efficient and take the user out of the interaction. So how to take all the plumbing and thinking away from of the user… It’s also about remote interaction – how do I cause something to turn on when I’m not there? But my take on it is, how do we apply this thinking to the objects that you can’t ever remove the plumbing from? The objects we will always have some tangible relationship with, and we appreciate constantly when we are present. The table will always be a surface for me to sit around and work with. I can never take that part out of the table.

W: Can you talk about stuff you’re working on now?

JB: We’re working around new ideas with tables… Even though it’s a table, I want to give people an experience. We are working on one which stores flat on the wall but comes out at any length from the wall. So it could be as long as the room or as high as the ceiling. It would be something you buy and install yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.