The Flowing Together of Forces

Jessica Banks engages her eclectic education to style products after natural phenomena.

07.01.2015 by Christopher Curtland

Jessica Banks is the CEO and founder of RockPaperRobot, an engineering and design firm that fuses art, décor, and technology. Described as a creative hybrid (she holds a B.S. from the University of Michigan in general physics with a concentration in creative writing, and a master’s degree from MIT), Banks invents products that transform how people think about the future. Her creations aim to expand the aesthetic and functional flexibility of workplaces and other commercial spaces.

RockPaperRobot’s offerings are more experience than object. The firm defies expectations through artful execution and staunch allegiance to utility and simplicity. I&S spoke with Banks about what inspires her creations and how her firm will influence the future of design.

Interiors & Sources: You have a couple degrees and even studied robotics. Tell us about your background.
Jessica Banks: Basically I had wanted to be an astronaut all my life. I studied physics, worked for NASA, and wanted to fly the shuttle, but then realized I wasn’t going to go into the Air Force. So I stopped for a little bit, moved to New York, and worked in entertainment for about four and a half years. But after that I still had the space bug.

I’d been working in L.A. and saw a movie called Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which is a documentary by Errol Morris that profiles a roboticist, a lion tamer, a naked mole rat specialist, and a person who carves trees into different shapes and figures. It made me realize that robotics and sculpture are awesome, and I thought I could totally do that. So I applied to MIT for robotics.

I’ve also always been interested in sculpture. I took art classes since I was very young. My mom is very artistic and creative. My dad is an industrial

designer, and I grew up around that kind of design. He worked for GE so I was always entering the shows and contests they had for employees’ children. I was constantly around his marker palettes and they were just so smelly. We would even go on car trips and my dad would bring all these markers, and I can remember the four of us and the dog in this marker-smelling car from New York to Wisconsin. So these influences probably somehow got into my brain in many, many different ways.

It all came together: the physics, sculpture, learning to work with my hands, and always loving color. I was actually blind for a little while so my eyes are a little different from other people’s, and I see a little bit differently in some respects. I have a very big appreciation for the things I see, and color, and subtlety. All of these things were forces in my life that pushed me in the direction of physics, design, art, color. It was sort of a confluence of everything.

I&S: How have you applied your background to product design?
JB: When I went back to MIT for robotics, I was still thinking of becoming an astronaut, going into space, and being a mission specialist instead of flying the shuttle. That was my intention. But after being there I realized one of the things I loved the most—which was a huge surprise—was working in a machine shop. Most of my friends were guys and they taught me so much about everything there. Many of them had been building skate park ramps and breaking arms since they were little kids, and I was trying to style Barbie hair. My brush with danger and manual skills was much smaller than many of the people I met.

Being at MIT was truly a resource of wonder. I felt like I learned how to see the world again and also really use my hands for the first time. It was so empowering learning I had this ability to change something that seemed to be completely unmalleable—to take a block of aluminum and make it into something I want. It was like, Holy mackerel, I can do anything.

That really got me into thinking that maybe I don’t necessarily need to build the robots we take into space. I can build things that are fun, pretty, and accessible to people. They can be a part of everyday lives. Furniture seemed like a really good opportunity for communicating to people my sense of empowerment and wonder with the world. I found my real interest was in the building of things and also imagining things that never existed at all.

Once my hands got more firmly connected to my brain, then my creativity really burgeoned because it was fulfilled creativity. That’s so, so important: the knowledge that I didn’t just have to think of an ambiguous image—I could actually think of a process to get there. So then my love of physics—there are so many amazing, natural wonders in the world that display dynamic principles—really started to fuel my design.

I&S: It seems that a certain physical phenomenon has inspired each of your inventions. Can you elaborate on that?
JB: The Float collection came out of my fascination with magnetism and wanting to communicate this amazingly intangible experience to people in a way that was now tangible and functional (besides just putting a picture up on the fridge). To make them feel the wonder constantly, that encouraged me. There are so many times we take for granted how cool shit is. It’s like, Wow. So besides just being a table that’s levitating, it’s a force for new connections in your brain. When you get inputs that you don’t usually see, and your eyes have these new stimuli, it changes the way that you think.

The Gleam chandelier is motor-controlled and transforms. It was very much born out of my love for shadows, and how light creates and changes them. The whole fixture itself can be illuminated in new designs we’re working on. The entire thing is like a bulb and it creates shadows as it moves. You can kind of draw on the ceiling. Most people only think of light as a design element and shadows are overlooked. But without the darkness, you can’t see the light. To me, they’re of similar importance.

There are many different inspirations for the Ollie line. One is simply business-oriented. My first tables were very high-end, one-off pieces, but I wanted to provide a more accessible offering that satisfied functional needs. We thought about palpable trends: urbanization, micro-apartments, how millennials work. The Ollie really fits the bill.

How water moves was another inspiration. How do we apply that fluidity and flexibility to a table? Having a product that stores flat on the wall and comes to any length seemed like a really good answer. There were many different mechanisms involved. At first people went, “Oh, kind of like a Murphy bed.” But no, a Murphy bed is binary. We’re analog, I said. It takes forms; it’s partially down; it’s in many different stages. You can use it however you need it to be.

We looked at desks and garage doors. We needed something that was rigid like a table but then becomes utterly flexible in a transition. There is a lot of furniture that transforms, but you leave it in one space. We wanted to inspire people to move. We built the tables and realized if you have a table that moves, what do you do with the chairs? So we developed a totally customizable line of seating that collapses quickly and pops back up— everything from regular dining chairs to stools, lounge seats, and ottomans.

I&S: How will design—and your ideas specifically—shape the future?
JB: When we see pictures or movies of the future, it’s all robots and white and Apple-y. But I don’t think we’re going to evolve out of our limbic system. We won’t stop liking beautiful things or being attracted to certain things. We’ll still have very visceral experiences to objects that are beautiful, sleek, nostalgic, and natural. Part of my goal is to really keep that link to beauty, awe, and wonder, and also to instill people with the technology that my skillsets enable.

Imagine a desk, chair, and even other parts of your room that could work together and make sure you are never vulnerable to a stress injury, or never have back pain. Imagine products that can connect to other devices and use the data from sensors about your real-time physiology, and that understands your historical and biographical information. We can know if you just had hip surgery or if you’re a runner, and then we could adapt the setting and experience to totally fit your lifestyle and make you healthier and happier. That’s where I’m looking.

Right now there’s a high attenuation rate, and there’s all this quantified data. People find out they don’t walk enough or they’re bad sleepers, but they don’t know what to do. “Oh great, I’m a shitty sleeper—now what?” Well I’m like, I can fix it! And I can do it in a way that doesn’t look like a medical table. It can be beautiful too.