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Prosthetics get the personal touch

COLUMM ONE

Synthetic legs have become a medium for self-expression, thanks to customization made possible by sophisticated technology. It's a bold melding of modern science and fashion statement.

April 04, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Leg fairings are specialized coverings that surround an existing prosthetic leg. They accurately recreate the individual's body form but also allow expression of personality and individuality.
Leg fairings are specialized coverings that surround an existing prosthetic… (Ronny Knight / Bespoke Innovations )

SAN FRANCISCO — We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better … stronger … faster.

— Opening to "The Six Million Dollar Man"

As a boy, Scott Summit was entranced by that television show's premise. As an industrial designer, he has made it his business.

Summit makes legs.

Chrome-plated legs. Leather-coated legs. Legs, some laser-etched with tribal tattoos, that mirror the shape of an amputee's sound limb without pretending in the least to be human.

PHOTOS: A revolution in prosthetics

Prosthetics long have focused on function. But the same design sensibility that has come to influence practical items like smartphones is turning synthetic limbs into a platform for self-expression. As Summit helps fulfill that desire, he is influencing what it means to live with a disability.

Designer limbs must "represent personality as well as physicality," Summit said recently from his work space on the upper floor of a light-dappled building near downtown San Francisco.

"The thought was, if it was beautifully sculpted and crafted, it would change … the way the person actually perceives their own body and, hopefully, it would then change the way society sees amputees."

Modern prosthetic engineering — cutting-edge suspension hardware on titanium rods and carbon graphite sprinting legs — has done wonders for utility but little to reference the human form. And to some amputees, attempts to mimic the real thing — flesh-toned silicone limbs, complete with fake veins — just don't seem right.

Summit's company, Bespoke Innovations, takes off-the-shelf prosthetics with the latest advances and surrounds them in personalized "fairings," a term borrowed from the shapely casings that reduce drag on motorcycles.

His clients tend to be young and image-conscious — wounded military personnel and injured motorcyclists are prominent. To spread the word about the emerging design field, Summit is collaborating with celebrity amputees, among them Paralympic record-setter Aimee Mullins, who changed the conversation when she walked down a London fashion runway 14 years ago in designer legs carved from solid ash.

"What Scott's onto is taking something that was ... at best functional and elevating it to something that is coveted by people who have legs of flesh and bone," said Mullins, 36, who was born without fibulae and had both legs amputated in infancy. "A prosthetic limb doesn't represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space."

The model and actress declined to spill the design details of her collaboration with Summit but promised that the newest legs for her collection would be beautiful.

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The earliest known prosthesis that facilitated movement is the bendable wood-and-leather "Cairo toe" discovered on a female mummy dating between 1069 and 664 BC.

In the Middle Ages, prosthetics were made of armor. Pirate-style wood posts and hooks followed. In the early 19th century, wealthy amputees commissioned hand-carved limbs with metal adornment before assembly-line manufacturing took hold.

During the Civil War, amputations were performed on 60,000 or so soldiers, according to Katherine Ott, medicine and science curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Prosthetics for survivors were so crude that Confederate army veteran James Edward Hanger fashioned one himself from whittled barrel staves and soon was commissioned to produce more. (Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics remains prominent.)

Alloys and plastics developed in later wars helped advance prosthetic devices. Then carbon fiber propelled function to new heights. Designed by amputee Van Phillips, the Flex-Foot Cheetah leg was produced in 1996 — just in time for Mullins to race in the Atlanta Paralympics. (South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, also a double amputee, currently is petitioning to compete with them in the Olympics.)

Recent developments have included advanced motors, myoelectric signals that trigger muscle movement and even brain-activated devices. Aesthetics, however, were driven by "the medical model," Ott said. "It was 'reconstruct the function that was lost and don't worry about anything else.'"

Where aesthetics were emphasized, they focused on hyperrealism, which typically landed them in the realm of "the uncanny valley" — a term used to describe the disturbing response people can have to animated or robotic replicas.

Take the foam rubber feet Mullins remembers from her youth: color-coded "Caucasian," she said, they resembled "nuclear peach."

Speaking at the 1998 International Design Conference in Aspen, Colo., she called on artists to dive into the world of prosthetics so that form, function and aesthetics could unite.

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