Floating chairs, granular timepieces, and morphing chandeliers may sound like impossible imaginings out of a Surrealist painting, but they can be found on display this weekend at the BKLYN DESIGNS furniture trade show. These fascinating constructs and more are creations from RockPaperRobot, an innovative design company formed by Jessica Banks and her business partner Andrew Laska. Banks, a former MIT roboticist and participant in Seed’s Design Series, believes the power of new technologies can imbue everyday objects with more awareness, utility, and beauty. She sat down with Seed to discuss her latest work, the power of novelty, and plans for spreading RockPaperRobot’s unique flavor of design around the world through open-source distribution.
Seed: How did you get into this field?
Jessica Banks: After I got out of college, I worked in entertainment for a while, then decided to go to grad school in robotics. When I was at MIT I got really interested in kinetic art, and I had always loved furniture and decor, so very early on I thought of having a kinetic furniture company, having chairs that move and reconfigure, tables that change shape, that sort of thing. So I left grad school to found RockPaperRobot along with Andrew Laska and actually make this happen.
Seed: Kinetic furniture… You mean like a La-Z-Boy recliner?
JB: Sure! The La-Z-Boy is a great example, a sort of forefather to the things we do at RockPaperRobot. We focus on making kinetic decor that moves and responds in a greater variety of ways. Our pieces can move passively, meaning they aren’t electrically powered and are directly actuated by people’s activities, or they can move more actively by being motorized and sensor-based.
Seed: Where do you get your ideas for new products? What’s your creative process?
JB: Well, first let me say I think a lot of people really glamorize their process and overanalyze it. I prefer to just tell the truth, that I suddenly think things like, “Oh, a table that did this would be really cool!” That’s how things start for me. But we do try to look to nature for inspiration. There are a few processes that we really love, things like erosion, the flocking of birds, the way stresses and tensions move through various materials. Reflecting on these things fosters some of our ideas. Then we just add on simple functionality—table, light, chair—and see what comes out.
Seed: Let’s talk about a specific piece. How about “Float,” your levitating magnetic table?
JB: Float is one of the simpler ones. Its inspiration basically comes down to this: We really love magnets! Another inspiration was a friend of mine at MIT, who showed me how you can make magnets act like springs. You just place two repelling “donut” magnets on a rod, and it makes a great mechanism. It’s strong, it looks cool. We took that concept and applied it to these cubes, supported by the repulsive force of the magnets and held together by tethers.
Another interesting one is “Turn,” which is a clock that uses sand to tell time. We’re trying to give an example of a principle here, the literal and figurative granularity of time. The product works similarly to an hourglass, but we’ve found a way to control the flow of sand using motors. As the clock turns, the sand falls and shifts in certain ways to align with numbers on the outside, thus telling the time. It’s a proof of concept, just a simple rectangle, but you could do anything, any shape, even in three dimensions. Future versions may have different granularities of sand to represent hours, minutes, and seconds. It’s important to us that all our products allow for customization details, so we always design in lots of variables and parameters we can shift and play with.
Seed: What are your motivations for making these things? Is there a key purpose?
JB: There are a number of answers. The most selfish and indulgent one is that it simply feels good to create. And that stems from our curiosity, our wondering if we can actually do some of the things we imagine. More practically, we strive to integrate the technology with the functionality, to enhance and increase a product’s utility.
Seed: Could you give some examples of enhanced utility?
JB: Well, I’ll volunteer that Float, for instance, is one of our more superfluous pieces—who really needs a floating table? But even here there is a social value and function. We originally imagined Float as a chair, where people would sit in it and be bouncing and floating on the magnetic field, but we had problems implementing this in a practical fashion. It’s very hard to stabilize a floating chair. But that instability is interesting, the way you can press down on one part and create a resonance frequency, a wave in the magnets that travels through the structure. It can be a way of showing people the more interesting side of dynamics, and instilling a sense of wonder. We want to make things that inspire double-takes, a visceral question of how and why a product works as it does. That reaction, when the brain asks a question unbidden, can tie people to a product and to an idea in surprising ways.
Another piece, “Gleam,” is more practical. Gleam is a reconfigurable chandelier, of sorts. It allows for more variable ambiance. You can focus light, make it diffuse, or set up dramatic shadows. It stemmed from us asking how we could make dimming or brightening of interior lighting more mechanically.
Seed: I understand you plan to publicly release the plans and designs for your pieces. Why?
JB: Yeah, we want to do that, even though it’s not very easy for some people to understand. There are many reasons we want to be an open-source design company. It’s good exposure, and avoids some of the difficulties in registering and enforcing patents. And it’s not like you can just give anyone these plans and expect them to recreate what we do without the skills and tools we have. But we like to think that by getting these schematics out there to more eyes and brains, new ideas for combining functionality and aesthetics can emerge. These fun little design experiments can trickle down or move into other areas.
It’s part of our status, our identity, as furniture engineers. We don’t know everything about how to build furniture, but we’re great problem-solvers, and fearless technologists. If you combine that with what is a degree of ignorance, it gives you a lot of freedom to play and be process-heavy. This is how we find novels ways of doing things and create new products. Maybe it’s how everyone does. Inexperience is quite powerful, a phenomenal creative tool. We want more people to harness that.
Seed: So what’s next for you, Andrew, and RockPaperRobot after BKLYN DESIGNS?
JB: Our exhibit is moving on to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair next week, so we’re very excited about that. It’s a much bigger venue—we’ll be like a drop in the ocean. Beyond that, we have 30 or so other designs that we’re thinking about, and we’d like to move forward with them, but we both have to find ways to not rely on day jobs first! We’re thinking about creating applications for mobile phones that can interface with products, like a shape-changing chandelier controlled via iPhone that you can play with almost like a game. We’re looking at new ways of using heat and light to imprint designs on materials, rugs in particular. Hopefully, we’ll get some commissions and do some consulting, so that we can keep making things that feel good.
Originally published May 7, 2010