Disability meets design

Viktoria Modesta
Lukasz Schorab
Viktoria Modesta

Viktoria Modesta’s prosthetic leg is a black spike; in the singer’s music video for her song “Prototype,” it rings like an icepick as she prowls a glass surface, finally bringing the spike down — shik! — and shattering it. “Assemble me piece by piece,” she sings, “the model of the future.”

That was in 2014. Today, Modesta is working with famed prosthetic engineer (and double amputee) Hugh Herr at MIT’s Media Lab, while her prosthetic from the video, “The Spike,’’ is on display as part of the MFA’s “#techstyle’’ exhibit. Created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project, it’s one of the most extreme examples to date of a prosthetic limb doubling as a fashion statement — but hardly the only one. Prosthetic limbs, long treated as mere utilitarian medical devices, have become a focus for artistic design.

De Oliveira Barata designs fantastical limbs that open to reveal serpents or glitter with crystals. Industrial designer Scott Summit creates 3D-printed limbs that look like delicate coral reefs. Alleles Design Studio makes ready-to-wear latticework legs in patterns with names like Mythic, Digital Rococo, and Future Plaid, each costing only a few hundred dollars. And more and more everyday prosthetists are offering detailing services, covering limbs in digitally printed art or elaborate hand-painted “tattoos.”


The fact is, more Americans are using prosthetics than 20 years ago. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have pushed prosthetic technology forward; more wounded warriors has meant more government grants to create limbs embedded with microcomputers, limbs that respond to a user’s own muscle contractions, limbs that give biofeedback. But perhaps more important was the change in how prosthetics were worn, as more veterans began to eschew flesh-colored covers and proudly bare their metal legs or arms, asserting that assistive devices — and, implicitly, their wearers — can be stylish.

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It remains to be seen whether that will spread to other medical equipment. While eyeglasses and now prosthetic limbs have lost their stigma, walkers, ventilator masks, power wheelchairs, and crutches all still tend to be constructed out of unembellished aluminum or oatmeal-colored plastic reminiscent of old desktop computers.

“Here disability aids become a stage to discuss, understand and cope with disability, illness and human frailty,” writes designer Francesca Lanzavecchia of the lace-like back braces she creates. Maybe soon more of our frailties will be beautiful.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at