Levitating Shelves, Folding Tables and Smart Furniture

This MIT graduate is making furniture inspired by robotics and physics.

Jessica Banks’s desk is situated in the back of a large room amid furniture prototypes. From the tall windows opposite her computer, a panorama of Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge is obscured by clouds. “I want to be contagious in creativity,” Banks said, looking up from the 3D chair model on her screen. Banks is the CEO and founder of RockPaperRobot, an engineering and design firm based in New York. RockPaperRobot’s office is part of an interdisciplinary workspace located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard called New Lab, a group with goals of advancing material sciences, robotics and manufacturing.

After studying robotics at MIT, Banks went into the world with the skills she needed to realize her lofty dreams. “Anything I could imagine, I felt like I could make.” Her first design for RockPaperRobot, a table made of cubes that appear to levitate, is meant to encapsulate the sense of awe she feels from the principles of physics. “When you have an emotional reaction or attachment, that’s extremely powerful,” said Banks. “The other part of it is that if you have to encourage your brain to ask a question — what is this? how does this work? — I think that helps people become more creative.”

“You have to encourage your brain to ask a question. What is this? How does this work? I think that helps people become more creative.”

Banks spent two years developing her idea for the levitating table. The table comes in two conventional sizes, a cube-shaped side table ($10,000) and a rectangular coffee table ($20,000), but can be customized upon request. From a distance, the tables appear as perfectly shaped cubes and rectangles, but upon closer inspection, the space between the floating cubes becomes more apparent, with only small tethers holding them together. They are sturdy enough to hold a stack of books, but still flex with the push of a hand. The assembly of the table is incredibly complicated, and thousands of pieces (tethers, magnets, shims, crimps) go into each one. Banks developed this floating idea further with a shelving unit, made of cubes, that appears to levitate outward from the wall. The panels of cubes for both the tables and the shelves are fully customizable with various woods, metals and completely personalized prints.

To see a row of cubes hanging off a wall with no noticeable support is a little unnerving, and it’s equally as confounding to study the symmetrical layout of the tables. The construction is clean and the wire tethers minimal, but on viewing I’m left with more questions than answers. I inspect the negative space and test the stiff buoyancy of the designs. It’s solid construction, somehow. The pieces are impressive, but unfortunately the $10,000+ price tag will limit most purchases to a small set of the population (likely including boutique, high-end hotels and design-minded businesses).

“Anything I could imagine, I felt like I could make.” Jessica Banks created RockPaperRobot after studying robotics at MIT.

That said, RockPaperRobot’s latest prototypes — a foldable table and chair set — bring innovation and function together at a more accessible price point. “I loved the ideas of how people choose their surroundings and how they reflect personality, and how it’s really easy and super powerful to be able to, just with a design element, change an entire space,” said Banks. The table, which rests vertically on a wall, can slide down into a horizontal position (of variable length) in seconds, ready to be used as a desk or a work surface. The slatted, collapsible chairs feature lumbar support and can be folded flat with the pull of a cord. Banks noted: “For us it’s really important that the experience of transformation is as compelling as the functionality that is elicited by being able to change.”

That blend of innovation and function is at the heart of RockPaperRobot’s products, and Banks has set her sights on producing kinetic furniture — pieces of functional art that also have the potential to change ergonomically based on the needs of the user. In the research phase now, furniture with embedded sensors has the potential to change our relationship with our possessions. “Imagine that your chair and table could keep your from ever having RSI [repetitive strain injury] or back pain or edema, or potentially help you if you had diabetes and needed to sit a certain way.” With that in mind, Banks is starting to shape the new frontier of smart furniture — technology that is not only connected, but also includes technology that monitors a user’s health and posture. “I want to think about the object, and especially furniture as experience.” And with the incorporation of these new technologies, RockPaperRobot has the potential to make a paradigm shift in the world of furniture.

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