March 23rd, 2012
10:06 AM ET

Turning prosthetic limbs into art

Editor's note: Scott Summit is founder and Chief Technology Officer of Bespoke Innovations, a company that designs artful coverings around prosthetic legs to make them unique and express individuality. CNN’s The Next List is celebrating the wonders of prosthetic innovation by profiling Hugh Herr, bionic man, on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

By Scott Summit, Special to CNN

I’ve always loved the work of the artists who consider the human form as their inspiration. Henry Moore, Giacometti, Brancusi – all interpret the body into their works. But that is fine art, and it seems that, all too often, there exists an impenetrable divide between the arts and the more utilitarian mindset which often drives the products we surround ourselves with. I have always wondered why it is, however, that certain fields cannot infuse both design and utility and artfully marry them to a more suitable outcome.

Specifically, I feel that any product that is medical or corrective becomes a necessary augment to the body, and therefore, should live up to that role. It should respect the user, and offer to them all the quality of living and self esteem that it is able. Its success should be measured in terms beyond merely the pragmatic, but should aim to enhance the user’s quality of living in every way possible.

I set out to create an option for an amputee that invites an individual personality and taste to play the dominant role in the design process. The goal is to transform a product from something that certain people need into something that they love.

The resulting process is one where the ‘sound side’ leg (or ‘surviving leg’) is three-dimensionally scanned, mirrored, and digitally superimposed over the prosthetic limb to serve as reference geometry for the design process to follow. By doing this, we recreate symmetry to the body and guarantee that no two creations can be identical. We then invite user preference in patterns, design, and materials to drive the form-giving. Finally, we three-dimensionally ‘print’ the parts using a variety of new technologies in this area.

The resulting ‘fairings’ (a word we borrow from the motorcycle world, describing the parts which give it contour and form) relate to the body and mind in ways that a more utilitarian prosthetic leg typically cannot. They express the individuality of the wearer in whatever way they prefer. I like to believe that they connect the prosthetic leg to the user in ways that go beyond mere functionality.

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Filed under: Art • Innovation • The Next List • Thinkers • Video