Maker Monday: An Aspire Exclusive Interview With Rob Barber

A master of innovation, Rob Barber has made a huge impact in the world of modernization. He has produced over 70 new products for ATOMIC, successfully launched new headquarters in Tokyo and Singapore, developed technology to print on eggs, and has recently been awarded the Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. A man that can do it all and do it efficaciously is what makes Rob Barber indomitable. Take a look into Barber’s world as we introduce him as this week’s Maker Monday!

Featured above in this commercial workspace is the piece “Turns.” Its minimalistic lines are meant to take your eye on a journey with twists, turns and curves.

Featured above in this commercial workspace is the piece “Turns.” Its minimalistic lines are meant to take your eye on a journey with twists, turns and curves.

Andrew Joseph: Describe your design style as if you were explaining it to someone who cannot see.
Rob Barber: Modularity in all things, and the marriage of function and aesthetic together. It’s building systems that make things more flexible, more dynamic, and more creative. When the parts and pieces join together to make something new and can rearrange in endless combinations. That’s the mantra behind Spacekit – a system designed around modularity, function, and aesthetics that gives others the tools to play and create with ease.

Andrew: If you weren’t a designer, you’d be a ….?
Rob: If we weren’t designing wall art and stages…we’d still be building systems. Since the inception of ATOMIC we’ve always had a hunger for innovation and a thirst for a simpler way of doing things, a system. These simple principles are at our core and they guide us each and every day. We’d find something to turn into a system!

Andrew: What’s the best thing that happened to you in 2020?
Rob: A lot of folks don’t realize how devastating 2020 was to the live event industry. But amid all the difficult decisions, this downturn also afforded us the opportunity to create, reinvent, and reengage our team into something that became a new company and new products. I’m speaking on behalf of the Spacekit team when I say: We were energized, smiling, and creative in a time when there was absolutely no reason to be happy, joking and creating. We all had so many difficult decisions and emotions, both personally and professionally, to process. These were some of the toughest decisions we ever had to make, yet it was awesome and somewhat therapeutic to focus on creating and designing.

Scattered around on the table above is the “Stained Glass” piece. Its prismatic pattern and vivid colors come together to create a uniform grid that will bring intrigue into any given space.

Scattered around on the table above is the “Stained Glass” piece. Its prismatic pattern and vivid colors come together to create a uniform grid that will bring intrigue into any given space.

Andrew: What’s your design pet peeve?
Rob: Design that isn’t flexible. Design that “checks a box” for the sake of checking a box and doesn’t ask the question “how can we do it better?”

Andrew: What was your first job?
Rob: My very first job was pumping gas, which literally lasted 3 hours until I quit. I was sixteen then and trying to score gas money. I immediately secured a loan from my parents so I could purchase a jigsaw, circular saw and router and I began designing and building dog houses, birdhouses, and sign placards. As early as I can remember, I was always drawn to building and tinkering. From there to cabinetmaker, to framing homes, to IT Director, to Car Rental, to ATOMIC.

For ATOMIC, one of our first jobs was MTV Unplugged. The show required fast ins and even faster outs which presented a new set of parameters, a new set of thinking. No tools required, modularity, creative thinking and a mindset of “pack small, play big” became the new design challenge. This required our founder, Production Designer Tom McPhillips, to begin creating a toolbox of items. Thirty years of live event design and fabrication later and that DNA has fueled the development of Spacekit.

Andrew: What are you most proud of?
Rob: I’m most proud of our team, their commitment, their energy, and their accomplishments during a time when the entire live event industry was on lockdown for 14 months. Aside from the seemingly obvious answer of a tangible product, I would say the biggest wins over the past 14 months were the often-overlooked small things like teamwork, communication, a deeper sense of caring for one another, and the ability to stay busy doing what we do best.

With Spacekit, created by Rob, you have the option to customize your own design. From texture, size, hardware and materials you can pick and choose elements that speak to you and your brand.

With Spacekit you have the option to customize your own design. From texture, size, hardware and materials you can pick and choose elements that speak to you and your brand.

Andrew: What are three four things you can’t live without?
Rob:

  • Bubble levels!
  • Not taking yourself too seriously, keeping a certain lightheartedness that is good, appropriate and necessary when it comes to design.
  • Innovation, not resting on my heels, instead constantly innovating.
  • Weird question Wednesday (a weekly fixture at our office)!

Andrew: What might the design world look like in 10 years?
Rob: A greater focus on modularity, which is an opportunity that’s been overlooked in life in general. For example, cabinetry. Yes, there have been developments, but what if we took modularity to an entirely different level. Get outside the norm. Life could be simplified, and industries could be completely changed if we applied modularity or the next level of modularity. There are untapped industries that haven’t been exposed to that exercise yet.

Andrew: What’s inspiring you in life (in the industry) right now?
Rob: As a team, we’ve listened to many episodes of “How I Built This,” a podcast about the origin stories of successful companies. In the early days of Spacekit we leaned into a startup mindset as much as we could even though we’re a 27-year-old company. Hearing about how others turned their passions into inventions, and brought innovative products into the world inspired us to run.

Andrew: Which room in the house do you find yourself working from the most? Why? How does this inform your thoughts about architecture?
Rob: I live in the center city in a flat-slab mushroom column warehouse with a ton of pane windows, so rather than working from a single room, I bought a standing-height rolling cart that gave me the luxury of moving around over the past 14 months with an unlimited number of vantage points. Suddenly, the array of sounds, light, shadow, and season all played a greater role. For me, it just further emphasizes the importance of change, mobility, and modularity.


About The Maker | Rob comes to ATOMIC with 25 years of executive leadership in technology and systems implementation and has developed the technology of printing on eggs, as well as environmentally controlled poultry houses, and all sorts of other “really weird chicken things.” Rob claims to know more about chickens and eggs than 99.9% of the world’s population. He has a formal education in fine woodworking and business management…an oddly weird and perfect fit for ATOMIC.

Since joining ATOMIC in 2010 as vice president of Modular Systems, Rob has implemented fundamental changes in the scenic rental industry while staying true to ATOMIC’s “Packs small, plays BIG” mantra. At ATOMIC, Rob has introduced over 70 new products and several new patented product lines, including Modular SuperLever, FASTwall, and SuperZipper. Rob also oversees the ATOMIC R&D efforts with a focus on new and never-been-done-before innovative modular product creations.


Andrew Joseph is a regular contributing editor for aspire design and home magazine. See more of his work here.

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