Plenty of entrepreneurs talk about disrupting an industry. Jessica Banks, founder of RockPaperRobot, is going to disrupt your furniture.

Don't laugh. Banks, a polymath who double-majored in physics and creative writing, sees infinite possibilities in something as seemingly simple as a table. Now she's using her engineering background--and a round of seed funding--to make them a reality.

The piece of furniture that put her New York City-based company on the map is essentially a space-age coffee table. Called the float table, it's a series of wooden cubes suspended in a grid formation. Each cube can be gently pushed out of place before snapping back, thanks to the powerful magnets embedded in each cube.

That table represents a landmark in Banks's fascinating journey from would-be astronaut to comedy talent scout to robotics engineer. (Her childhood reaction to being told she was a quarter-inch too short to become a space traveler: "That's fair, because at some point, you've got to pedal the [space] shuttle.")

But that same $10,000 table has also put her at a crossroads, for building bespoke robotic furniture and running a mass-market business. Now Banks is hoping her carefully engineered, beautifully designed furniture can reinvent how her customers think of the smart home.

"Physical objects give us a great deal of joy," she says. "Yet so much is built so that the human can ignore it." In her work, she says, she's looking to create "a favorable intrusion. Beauty is a welcome intrusion. Awe is a welcome intrusion." 

The Rebirth of Wonder

Banks didn't grow up tinkering and building, despite growing up close to tools. Her father, who had been a manager of industrial design for GE Medical, had a tempting workshop in the family's basement, but "my dad told me not to go into the side of the basement with the tools, so I wouldn't get hurt," Banks recalls. Sometimes she couldn't resist, playing with her dad's electric eraser and then denying any connection to the little latex threads left around the house.

During high school, she lost her vision for two terrifying weeks. (She still doesn't know why.) When it came back, her vision was far better than 20/20. "The tissue scarred in a way that I almost got natural Lasik," Banks says.

But her peripheral vision was also unusually sharp, and she'd lost the ability to filter out irrelevant visual input. Banks still makes what she calls visual mistakes, such as seeing separate objects overlap or blur together. "I'll see something and think, 'That thing is falling into that other thing,'" she says. "Then I realize, no, it's not--but it could. I could make that happen."

Those visual mistakes feed her creativity now. But in high school, Banks's altered vision pushed her to stick with math and physics, because it was so tiring for her to read big blocks of text. Math and physics books, with lots of white space surrounding the formulas, were easier to comprehend.

She went on to study physics in college, with the intention of becoming an astronaut. That meant joining the military, and Banks's liaison officer was skeptical. "I was asking questions like, well, what if I don't like this?" she recalls. "What if you tell me to shoot and I don't want to do it?"

Instead, she got a job at Comedy Central, worked briefly as a talent scout, and then as the personal assistant to Al Franken. The documentary Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which featured MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, made her realize that robotics might marry her disparate interests. She applied to Brooks's lab and was accepted.

There, finally, Banks got the run of a workshop. She describes her time at MIT as "the rebirth of wonder … I was walking around and could see details in ways I just couldn't before. I started working with my hands again."

She learned to use machine tools in the lab there, making up for the experience she had missed out on as a child. Her background in physics helped everything fit into place.

"First, I was like, whoa, this is how things are made," she says. "I didn't even think about it before. Then I was like, OK, I get it, this is a system, just like physics is a system. This is a more granular look at the world."

Banks thrived at MIT, staying on to lecture in the engineering department. Then the architect Frank Gehry came to the university scouting for assistants. Banks took a leave of absence to work with him--and when it was over, she didn't want to come back. "I was in the 24th grade," she says, and no longer 100 percent committed to academia. It was time to leave.

Banks had also become fixated on a magic trick she'd seen, in which magnets fell very slowly through a tube. "How can I give people that same sense of amazement?" she thought.

It occurred to her that furniture, as something everyone uses and understands, would make an ideal vehicle. And she knew she wanted to use cubes, even though she says, "I very rarely think about aesthetics first." A fellowship at art and technology incubator Eyebeam helped her start thinking through the float table; by 2010, she had a prototype.

The engineering and construction challenges presented by that table were a little ridiculous. Most furniture is built first, and then polished or finished. But to construct the float table, the cubes had to be perfect before they were assembled. The table had to be designed so that it could be repaired, even though a good deal of the table's charm comes from the fact that it doesn't appear to have any "parts" at all.

The magnets on the bottom row of cubes have to support the whole table, but in the upper two rows, any magnets Banks added would also increase the cubes' weight, and therefore the difficulty in repelling any particular cube from its neighbors.

At a retail price of $10,000, Banks wanted the tables to be beautiful, which meant endless fiddling with the cubes' arrangement and the grain of the wood. Once a table is finished, the owner can't just pick it up and move it around a room, so Banks had to design an installation for the table. "As an engineer and artist, I never feel like something is done," Banks says. "That's sort of a bad business model."

Part of the reason it took so long to develop the float table is that for all her talents, Banks isn't a furniture maker. When a friend introduced her to Pete Schlebecker, a furniture maker and teacher with an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Banks knew he would be her first employee. "OK, I'm committed," she thought. "Whatever I earn is his money."

RockPaperRobot now includes four full-time employees and nine part-timers. Money still comes chiefly from investors rather than customers: She's sold about sixteen float tables, each of which is handmade in her studio and ships with its own cleaning tools. She also raised a million-dollar seed round from angels in the fall of 2014.

Nonetheless, one of her chief priorities is developing new pieces of furniture and home accessories that can sell for three or four figures rather than five each. The magnets, theoretically, could be used to levitate a range of smaller objects, from tissue boxes to vases.

Levitation for the Home

Banks's vision of the smart home has almost nothing to do with the popular conception of the phrase. "People talk so much about the Internet of things, and I'm like, sure, whatever, of course everything is going to be connected," she says.

Instead, Banks sees the smart home as not just technologically enabled, but also creative and fun. After the float table, she introduced the float shelf, which appears to hover next to a wall. She's working on a chandelier that contracts or expands as it senses people moving around a room. Her chandelier's current form has a basic six arms, each holding a light bulb. The next version will sport a more organic, 3-D printed form, and the entire mass will glow. As it moves, it will use light to draw on the ceiling.

A more problematic design is one for another unconventional table, which Banks jokes "has taken a lot of my fertile years away." She hopes to unveil it at the New York International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May, and won't share details about its design before then. Getting it made has been harder than she expected, and the consultant she hired to do the final prototyping and the design for manufacture ended up being over budget, late, and generally not up to the task. That forced Banks to do the work in-house.

"I'm exhausted," she says. "Mortally exhausted. But right now, I can do it this way. I'm learning to delegate, which maybe will help."

She apologized when I tripped over an errant flip-flop, explaining that she'd slept in the studio the night before. In the face of constant fatigue, she's greatly refined her decision-making strategy: "There are no decisions," she says. "Just act, and course-correct quickly."

Her "no decisions" mantra means she now prefers less information to more, not even bothering to look at weather forecasts--she just keeps an umbrella and a sweater at her workshop.

Banks hopes things will ease up a bit after the trade show. Longer-term, she isn't sure what form RockPaperRobot will take. She doesn't find the manufacturing side of the work terribly fulfilling, and can see RockPaperRobot as a design and engineering firm--but a disruptive one, of course. After all, Banks isn't interested in "just pretty curves," she says. Instead, her next goal: "Deengineering, maybe?" 

Published on: Apr 7, 2015