Designing chairs and tables isn't exactly rocket science, but Jessica Banks has the creds to make you think that's the case. After earning a master's degree from MIT, where she was in the Humanoid Robotics Group within the computer science and artificial intelligence lab, and teaching in the university's civil and environmental engineering department, she left academia and founded the furniture company Rock Paper Robot.
Banks opened up shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and started developing pieces with technical twists. Her Float table, for example, is composed of wood cubes that seemingly hover in air. That bit of visual trickery comes courtesy of tensile cables and what the company describes as "classical physics applied to modern design."
"Furniture was an unchanging genre of artifacts," Banks says of her motivation to add a mechanistic element to tables and chairs. At the most recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair, New York City's annual design show, she introduced two new pieces: the Ollie table and chair.
Far from wanting to design for novelty's sake, Banks set out to solve a common problem when it comes to static objects: versatility. "I was trying to design a surface that someone can use anyway they want or at any length," she says. The Ollie table mounts vertically against a wall, rolls out when it's needed, and discreetly folds back when it's not. When closed, it sticks out less than four inches so it meets ADA requirements for commercial spaces. The frame is made from sturdy and lightweight aluminum and the top can be customized.
The furniture makes the most sense in space-starved apartments is the most obvious, but Banks sees more applications. "Even if you don't have a small place, you might want a humongous banquet table one day or a shorter one the next and for your furniture to accommodate all those situations," she says.
Banks initially envisioned residential consumers as her base, but then thought on a larger scale. "With transformable furniture, we can influence how spaces are being used," she says. "Clasrooms, retail spaces, pop-ups. I think it's possible that it could even help with revenue streams. If you're a food and beverage space, there are certain times you need to accommodate more flow, or times where you need to accommodate more people. You can modulate your environment and optimize those patterns."
Seating came after the table. "I didn't set out to do a chair," she says. "There are a lot of folding chairs in the world and because of that very fact I was reluctant. However, if you have a table that folds flat against the wall, someone will ask about the chairs. Then I thought we needed some chairs that will disappear as well." The Ollie chairs can support 300 pounds and pop open thanks to a proprietary mechanism with internal spring hinges. A string connects key points and when it's pulled, the chair folds flat. It's about an inch think, depending on the surface material you choose, so it'll stow nicely under a bed, sofa, or in a closet.
Seeing the furniture quickly pop into place is a sight to behold and surefire crowd pleaser, which adds a welcome element of levity to an industry that tends to take itself too seriously.
"If I can make someone excited or smile, it's like I can give them a moment of being a child," Banks says. "It's great marketing because when you have a visceral effect, you make more of an indelible impact. If everyone could feel that rejuvenating moment more ofter, they would be a lot nicer."
The collection is expected to go on sale in October 2015 and pricing is available on request.