Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s work is pushing the boundaries of prosthetics. With her striking floral porcelain legs, stereo legs, detachable anatomical limbs and even legs made from Perspex shards, crystal or brass, she transforms the physical appearance of prosthetics into highly stylised pieces of art.
In the London studio of her company -The Alternative Limb Project – she combines the latest technology with traditional craftsmanship to produce each piece. Her clients have included Paralympic athletes, musicians, models and video game companies.
Here, Lucy Mason talks to Sophie about her work.
Q: What motivated you to set up your own company?
I studied Special Effects at the London School of Fashion and before establishing my own company, I worked for 8 years at the London Prosthetic Clinic where I learned how to sculpt realistic limbs.
It was a rewarding job but I knew there was an opportunity to turn a limb into a beautiful piece of art that could reflect the personality, interests or style of the wearer. I thought it would be a good talking point for that person and would help them engage with the limb.
Q: What inspires you?
Our bodies are not just practical, they are the windows to our soul: fashion, body language, body building, body modification, makeup, plastic surgery, gender reassignment – our bodies and appearance can be the ultimate expression. This fascinates and inspires me.
Working with amputees, I realised how important it was to produce a bespoke limb. Creating a hyper realistic limb wasn’t just about looking real, but also being unique, just as bodies are unique.
Q: Tell us about your work
I generally work with a client’s prosthetist to make the skin or cover to go over each limb structure that they have built. But sometimes the projects I work on mean managing a team of up to 10 people.
Each limb has its own challenges, whether that’s working with new materials or learning new techniques. I often collaborate with others with different skill sets, such as electronic and mechanical engineers, art finishers, computer 3D modellers, metal workers and wood workers depending on what the job requires. This is always fun as then it opens you up to a whole lot of other options.
I still make realistic limbs as I feel it’s an important service to offer. They can be very challenging as I am matching an inanimate material with a living person with skin tones that change with blood circulation and temperature.
Q: What’s your most unusual prosthetic limb request?
I was once asked to make an arm out of wood and engraved metal that incorporated a fishing rod and small drawers for bait.
Q: What do you love about your job?
It’s quite incredible seeing the client wear their limb for the first time. My last client remarked that she got goose bumps with excitement. In some cases you can actually see a physical change as my work can help the client hold their body with more confidence.
One lady told me she felt feminine again, while another said he enjoyed giving people something he felt was worth staring at. All clients say that the limbs encourage more positive interactions with strangers.
Q: How is the industry changing?
There has definitely been a shift in the industry, where aesthetics are playing a bigger role.
I am starting to see more funky designs in hospitals too. There is an option for people to bring in patterned material to be laminated into their prosthetic. Clinicians realise the psychological impact of personalising prosthetics.
Prosthetics is a fast developing industry and I am constantly being asked by people as young as 10 years old what they should study to follow a similar path.
Q: What is the future for prosthetic limbs?
I think it will become easier for people to design, customise and possibly make their own limb covers. Currently, there isn’t much flexibility when it comes to having one limb that does it all. People still need, for example, a swimming leg, a running leg, a high heel leg. I imagine we will be seeing more modular limb pieces that the wearer has control over.
Personally, I want to carry on making unusual and ground-breaking designs that continue to inspire people.
- I’ve over 960 realistic prosthetic limbs over the past 13 years including: fingers, partial hands and feet, full arm and legs.
- Furthest customers – Papua New Guinea
- Thinnest layer of silicone commonly applied – 0.2mm
- Youngest amputee worked with – 4 years. Oldest amputee worked with – 76 years
- Most amount of limbs stored at any one time in freezer – 5
- Cups of teas it takes to make a limb – on average 83