As the world turns its attention to the paralympics and the Blade Runner, Oscar Pistorius, designer Hanna Mawbey describes how her sister’s congenital illness triggered an interest in medical aids which led her to design a prosthetic leg which owes more to craft than technology.
My interest in the design of medical equipment has its roots in my firsthand observations of growing up with a congenitally ill sister. Her constant ill-health, and conversely my relative good-health, is the catalyst from which my interest has grown.
My sister has to use numerous medical aids and devices to help ease the symptoms of her illness. Often, these objects are functional and ‘ugly’ to behold; their primary concern is with performing a task. For example, breathing apparatus and intravenous drips are produced in garish colours, weird shapes and in materials that lend the objects little sense of worth or longevity.
Whilst photographing my sister during a recent hospital stay, I started to make connections between the medical equipment she used and the work I had been undertaking at the University of Brighton.
Prosthetic limbs have been a personal interest of mine for a number of years. When I first visited the Wellcome Collection I was struck by the display of prosthetic arms and legs, how beautifully made and detailed they were in comparison to the ones that are made now. Innovations in the manufacture and production of prostheses is an essential thing – companies such as Blatchford and Otto Bock are constantly striving to find new durable, lightweight and comfortable materials to make prosthetics with. Speed of production is the key. Amputations due to increased action in war, increased cases of diabetes and various other illnesses mean that more and more patients require the use of a prosthetic.
I first became involved with Otto Bock Sussex Rehab Centre a number of years ago when my friend was going there for a routine appointment. I was invited along to meet the team of prosthetists and technicians. From this moment onward, I knew I wanted to come back and visit again.
A requirement of the MDes course at the University of Brighton is that a period of work placement is undertaken. The time spent on my work placement at Otto Bock was incredibly useful. The team of technicians supported and helped me to understand how to make prosthesis, the technical aspects of balance and forces involved as well as gaining an understanding of the materials used in the production process.
One aspect I became very interested in was the use of leatherwork in the making of limbs. Leather is not used so much any more – it takes a long time to prepare. It is however the most comfortable material to have next to skin. Modern prosthesis are made from various plastic foams such as plastezote or pedilin.
I was struck by how detailed the leatherwork was, in comparison to the rest of the limb and I began to learn about leatherworking techniques. The leatherworker at Otto Bock is a man named Tony. He has done the job for over forty years and watching him work is just amazing – I have never seen someone work so fast and make a difficult process look so easy.
I was not sure how, or why I was going to use leatherwork at this point of the project, but I knew that I really enjoyed the process and was keen to somehow integrate it into my work. Then I met the patient that would inspire me to make a prosthetic leg. He is an below-knee amputee who was in a motorcycle accident when he was a teenager. Becoming an amputee at a relatively young and fit age has meant that he was able to adjust and adapt to his new circumstances relatively quickly. He was involved in the ‘chap’ movement of modern gentlemen. This sub-cultural group live as though they are typical English ‘gents’ from yesteryear – wearing tweed, mustaches, brogues, vintage clothing from a bygone era. This seemed to fit in so well with my desire to use leatherwork, so I proposed that I make a prototype “Gentleman’s Leg”, inspired by this man.
Quickly, I got to researching brogue patterning on shoes and found that the use of patterning on these shoes is because they were worn in marshy, swampy areas. The holes from the patterns served as drainage. Initially thought to have developed in Scotland and Ireland, these shoes that were once working men’s shoes became gentlemen’s shoes.
I decided to go with this and started playing around with laser-cutting the leather I had been given by the technicians at Otto Bock. This is when the project really started to come to life and I was able to start designing pieces specifically with my patient in mind.
I decided to use a combination of Beech wood and leather as a reference to the materials formerly used in the manufacture and fabrication of prostheses. It created a link with the past – Beech was historically used for its strength and durability, leather for its comfort and warmth.
Through manipulation of materials and applying their use to the modern day, I was aiming to create a link with the past and to highlight the positive aspects of using those materials. I specifically wanted to make a prosthetic leg that was bespoke, tailored like a suit would be and with the patient’s personality in mind. This move away from fast production and cheap materials means that it took longer to make, but was very much in keeping with the patient’s needs and tastes. I hoped to highlight that disabled individuals were just that – individuals. In the same way you might choose a new outfit, I am hinting that perhaps prosthetics can be picked and chosen in the same way. I hope that my concept could highlight a similar need in the design of prosthetics and medical aids.
Further reading and information can be found by visiting my website and my research blog. For a refreshing look at prosthetics, please also watch this video by Aimee Mullins at a TED talk she gave a few years ago. If you have any questions, please do get in contact with me.