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RockPaperRobot brings physics to your home

When you think of astrophysics, you probably don't think of furniture or interior design. But to Jessica Banks, every principle of physics is a concept for home decor waiting to happen.

When she was a child, Banks wanted to be an astronaut. So she studied astrophysics at MIT, and then joined NASA. But along the way, Banks discovered she had a passion that went beyond the cosmos.

"I realized I really loved building things and I felt this whole new command over the world," Banks told CBS News. "I realized I wanted to build stuff and make things, and I also wanted to make pretty stuff. I did a lot of sculpture and I love home decor so I thought 'What if I can apply what I'm learning now, these professional and engineering skills, to a different field?' So I decided to make furniture that moves."

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Jessica Banks.
CBS News

Banks founded and is CEO of the home design company RockPaperRobot. For her, the name reflects the magic of basic earthy things like rocks, the design potential of paper and futuristic potential of robotics.

For most people, however, "furniture that moves" might sound like a contradiction. After all, people usually like their furniture to stay put.

But some enjoy the surprising and mind-expanding dynamics of Banks' designs enough to pay thousands of dollars for it.

RockPaperRobot's signature brand, for example, is "The Float Collection," subtitled "Grace under Pressure."

The "Float Table" is made of large, highly polished wooden cubes that appear to float in space, disconnected from each other. What keeps them from falling together into a heap? Opposing magnetic forces push the blocks apart. Invisible cables hold them together.

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RockPaperRobot's "float table."
CBS News

If you lean firmly on the table, it gently gives way. If you stop, it returns perfectly to form, without a trace of the pressure. That's the physics at work.

"Basically I try to encapsulate a dynamic principle or something about a physics concept into a moment that keeps on living," Banks explained.

Now, that's exactly what she does as the founder and president of RockPaperRobot.

Banks is an astrophysicist. But she's also a designer, entrepreneur, roboticist, and inventor.

Tables, chandeliers, shelving systems, RockPaperRobot makes it all --- but nothing in the ordinary way. Banks combines rugged materials with art, and engineering with style. But not just to make pretty things.

Banks wants to draw people's attention to the beauty of science.

"There is such a tremendous elegance to physics," Banks said. "I am so often truly impressed by such simple things, like capillary action, erosion, the way that shadows will fall on smoke from chimney, or magnetism. And I don't think enough people really take the time in their days to appreciate these things."

RockPaperRobot is Banks' way of encouraging others to see what sees - "to somehow look twice at the magic that is what we live everyday."

Banks' designs have won critical praise. The high prices have narrowed the potential pool of customers. The Float Table, for instance, costs about $10,000.

So RockPaperRobot just launched its Ollie Collection, focused on small spaces and flexible living, and aimed at a broader demographic and lower price-point. The collection's main piece is a shape-shifting, wall-mounted table that can be used as anything from a work desk to a banquet table, and that will retail for around $3,000.

Banks is still working out how to keep creating high-end designs while expanding and reaching a wider public. But she is still focused on core questions that drover her to give up one form of rocket science to pursue another.

"We're looking at 'How do we make life better?'" Banks said. And her answer remains the same: "By engaging and incorporating the tech that we have into these objects that we touch and use constantly."