Actor, athlete, model and advocate Aimee Mullins spoke to Products of Design students in an intimate talk this week. Mullins has wielded her status Paralympic star and public double-amputee to become an agent of change. Along the way, she has attracted incredible collaborators in the arts, engineering and activism; been appointed L'Oreal Paris global brand ambassador; and been named by Secretary Clinton alongside sports legends such as Billie Jean King to the Council to Empower Women & Girls Through Sports.
In the sunny studio, Mullins reviewed the evolution of the common prosthesis; from pallid, shapeless form to new feats of responsive bionics, and exquisite "hacks" that nimbly "play the scales of advantage and disadvantage." Speaking as a prosthesis user, she emphasized the privileged role designers might play in "empowering people to play a role in their own space and body." Mullins challenged students to empower users and complicate outdated perceptions through thoughtful and beautiful interventions.
Mullins recalled a childhood where her growing form was weighted by huge rivets, leather cuffs, three-ply woolen socks and a compound plastic leg that "hadn't changed since the Eameses started bending plywood after the war." She shared family photos to illustrate what life was like for an American amputee before mobility activists hacked Segways to use as wheelchairs.
Nowadays, an influx of returning battle amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan boosts bionics research and development. But in the 1980s, "basic function was the only consideration" of prosthesis-makers, and her working-class parents knew that "insurance only covered what would take you from the bed to the toilet." Her girlhood foot was thus made of a dense foam, molded into the "horrible template of a genderless foot." Its gnarly toes would snap off during kickball, and its proportions would change her gait when she tried to run.
Flash forward to 1995, when Mullins was a Georgetown scholarship student competing on carbon fiber legs in track and field. This was an exhilarating breakthrough, but life in the public eye caused woe. Her fresh triumphs were quickly followed by a debate about "disabled" athletes becoming "too abled," since the C-curve of her legs, free from typical heel strike, eliminated 2 seconds off her race time. At the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, Mullins scored a world record in the 100 meter, 200 meter and long jump. But with triumphs came new troubles: Her leg came off at a meet in front of 5,000 people, and she broke her hips on impact when hot sand in the jump pit made her legs act "like skis" instead of mobility aids. Later athletic prototypes again and again failed to take sweat or heat into account. Mullins showed a model featured on the cover of I.D. Magazine so aggressively propulsive, that she felt always poised on the tip of her toes.
Function and form finally met when Dorset Orthopaedic crafted elegant silicone limbs that claimed the delicacy and detail appropriate to everyday wear–a level of aesthetic enhancement, Mullins noted, available in the prop rooms of Hollywood for decades. Their kevlar-backed casts and molded toes created the look of natural nail beds, pedicures, and even veins or freckles.
Where "discretion was the presumptive norm" in yesterday's prosthesis-making, the new wave of makers see "human-looking as just another choice." Mullins encouraged students to think about users "claiming this piece of real estate," showing legs crossed by gilt wing tendrils of metallic pavement embedded in silicone–a pair she wears in tribute to the early Olympics. Mullins also shared how she was moved to tears when SVA Designer as Author students gave her speculative designs for a latticework arm dotted by twigs and seasonal pods. The arm would blossom and sprout each spring, like a "Chia pet you could wear," she smiled.
Late fashion designer Alexander McQueen saw Mullins in I.D. and immediately commissioned a London master carver to make her legs of solid ash. "I had seven hours to learn how to walk in them," she said of modeling the legs, now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (but decisively not calibrated for strutting). Her runway debut in McQueen's Spring/Summer 1999 London Fashion Week show (look for Mullins at 15:10) was triumphant. On the experience of being a high fashion model, Mullins quipped, "It's fun to imagine where the prosthetics are on the other women's bodies."
Importantly, Mullins does not limit her work to niche fashion magazines or obscure luxury products. She now works with L'Oreal to represent a brand equally visible "in a drugstore in Jaipur, and Wichita and Bogotá." She cited a figure that 1/7 of the population of several Southeast Asian countries are landmine amputees, and often treated as "disenfranchised socioeconomic subclass" that suffers shame from their appearance. Global visibility is therefore as critical as vigor and health to Mullins' project of changing perceptions about her condition.
Mullins has an ongoing acting engagement with conceptual artist Matthew Barney, having starred in his epic art project and feature-length film series, The Cremaster Cycle. A recurring motif in Barney's series is the Masonic idea that "you lose your lower self to attain a higher self." Hers were demanding roles. Special effects master Gabe Bartalos took polyurethane to transform her lower body into that of a cheetah for 13 hours before a day's shoot dashing and pouncing inside the Guggenheim. Other characters demanded that Mullins cut potatoes with her foot, or wear legs cast from soil with a single brass toe, from which she would spin yarn into wool. She mentioned feeling great kinship when later reading about the nurse of ancient Egypt's Pharaoh Hapshepsut. The nurse had lost a toe to diabetes, but decided to embrace her condition by dipping her new linen toe in fabulous gold.
"Disability is palatable if suffering and struggle is paramount," said Mullins as a counterpoint to activist critiques of her exuberant public image. Mullins copes with critics by finding inspiration in outliers from other social justice struggles. About her experiences as an amputee athlete in the public eye, she quoted feminist author Gloria Steinem: "Hostility is a step forward from ridicule." Perhaps these experiences inspire Mullins' dream acting role: To play Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant but unheralded scientist who discovered the double-helix of DNA.
Citing the early joy of being treated in the vivid red room of a color-coded children's ward, Mullins encouraged Products of Design students to embrace the universal value of environmental stimulation: "The necessary stability of a hospital does not have to translate into sensory stability." She encouraged ruthless disciplinary cross-pollination to bridge the awkward divide between the agendas of surgeons and prosthetists. Where one is amputated, she reminded the room, impacts not just design potentialities for mobility, but also for the emotional resonance of a personal touch.
"There are a million iPhone covers, but there's only 'Caucasian' or 'Not-Caucasian' for a prosthetic leg," she observed. Mullins exhorted student designers to take advantage of the "smartest, most engaged and most empowered generation of consumers" and create demand for beautiful solutions.