Wonderful Women: Jessica Banks and Mihae Mukaida’s Furniture Has Moves
By Koun Bae
April 03, 2013
Here at Plum Alley, there’s nothing we love more than hearing the stories of entrepreneurial women who are truly innovative and creative. The melding of artistic creativity and technological innovation is what really gets us going, and the two women behind the kinetic design company RockPaperRobot (RPR) are doing just that with their products.
Jessica Banks and Mihae Mukaida’s reiteration of a coffee table, the Float Table, is made of magnetized wooden cubes that appear separate and floating with respect to one another, the cubes held in equilibrium by tensile steel cables. At the touch, the table sways and moves, yet all the while maintaining its structure and functionality as a coffee table. Can’t believe it? Check out its moves in the side video.
Their latest project (in collaboration with engineering studio Hypersonic) were “barista bots” that debuted at SXSW which drew customer’s faces onto a foamy latte. The pair is now working to create a kinetic jewelry line as well as expand RPR‘s projects, and as busy as they are, Jessica took some time to talk to us about scientific principals and how the ’97 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control changed her life.
PLUM ALLEY: Could you tell us a bit about how RPR got started?
JESSICA: I actually started RockPaperRobot in 2009 with another business partner, and we basically put out five different lines of furniture in about four months. It was kind of crazy, and we got totally burnt out, and then we both just kind of abandoned working on it for awhile. My other business partner… he decided that having a company wasn’t for him, so I had all the IP and everything, so I kept the company. It went dormant for about a year, and in 2011 I met Mihae at a creative agency doing interactive installations for large companies and we just loved working together at the company and we decided to relaunch RockPaperRobot and work together as business partners. We have been transforming the company into a women-run engineering boutique, and we specialize in kinetic furniture and home decor and offer retail installations, and we’re also working on a line of kinetic jewelry as well.
PA: So what special projects are you working on right now?
JESSICA: We’re working on another run of tables that look like diamonds balancing on a point. Because we’re such a small outfit, we do projects in series, because each one of our projects is so different from the next one and it involves totally different materials and tools, so we can only really handle one at a time right now. We issue a product while we’re doing R&D for another one, and then that one will be ready, and we’ll do R&D on another… We’re also working on a table that stores flat on the wall and slides down the wall to any link.
PA: How does your design process work?
It’s interesting. Our methodology is maybe a little different–though that’s hard to say since we don’t know how all design firms work and we don’t know many other firms that really do this in this market. It’s hard to define the market for high-end kinetic furniture and kinetic jewelry [laughs]. So Mihae and I have good complimentary skill sets, and we go about designing furniture from the standpoint of a process, so it might be something like a physics principal–like either shadows or the way that light diffracts, levitation, or magnetism. So we come up with an element of the physical world that is interesting to us and then we try to think of how we can express this in an object that is both functional and beautiful.
PA: We love how unique your product is in that it adds this extra kinetic layer to functionality and form.
JESSICA: Yes, and besides just kinetic stuff, it’s also adding that moment of getting people to really think about the objects in their home. This is something that I’ve really learned while teaching–to get someone to really absorb and own an idea, they have to ask questions about it. So when we show someone our products, they might not even know that they’re asking themselves this question, but they’re taking a second look to say, “Whoa, that works!” That’s what makes someone think more and have a bigger reaction and relationship to our product. Awe and wonder are pretty good sales tactics!
PA: What did you do before RockPaperRobot?
JESSICA: I have a physics background. I did physics as an undergrad; I had wanted to be an astronaut all my former life, and so I did physics and creative writing in college, and then took time off while working in entertainment with Al Franken. We were producing a show out in California when I went to see a documentary called Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, which is a documentary by Errol Morris, and it basically follows the lives of four different people: a topiarist, a roboticist, and there’s a naked mole rat specialist and a lion trainer. And I thought, wow, robotics, that’s like physics and sculpture mixed together! I totally want to do that. So I told Al I was going to apply to MIT, and it turns out that the guy in the movie was actually the MIT professor that I ended up working with.
PA: What kind of difficulties have you encountered being a female student of physics at MIT and just a female in a male-dominated field in general?
JESSICA: It’s weird… I don’t know if it was difficulties, but I think that our presence changed the dynamics of our classes very tangibly. I never wanted to play the woman card, and I was always very, very cautious about that, and that’s a really interesting thing. I was always [thinking] that there was this psychological aspect of this that I had to be very aware of, and I think that can be really taxing, because men, when they go to a class, they don’t have to deal with that, right? They don’t have to think about how they have to manage everyone else’s expectations in some way… First of all, as a woman, we’re more wired to be aware of the psychological surroundings and then besides naturally doing that, having to be even more conscious of that is an interesting facet that I don’t think a lot of people talk about.
PA: What do you think can be done to encourage younger women go into science and tech fields?
JESSICA: I think to have women mentors is really important. Also finding interesting projects [is important]. Often people are thrown into projects that are very male-oriented. For me, I wanted to make smart and pretty things, you know? And for a lot of people, the other part of it wasn’t as interesting. So being exposed to all the different things that are possible and [mentors] expressing what it was like to get to where they are to younger women is important.