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Grasp of the Matter: Designer Scott Schmidt wants to make prosthetics pretty.

Secrets of the Universe

Furniture maker Scott Schmidt designs a better body

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

The body is both humble and magnificent, depending on which lens you see it through. At times, it seems debased by its own frailty; at others, it appears worthy of the utmost dignity. The medical emphasis is on frailty; prop up that weary flesh with practical, durable materials that can be tossed out later. Scott Schmidt, a furniture designer, artist and nursing student, views the body as dignified, considering the person inside the skin worthy of, say, a prosthetic arm carved out of rosewood or a cane painted in bright colors and made to feel permanent.

Schmidt, a 45-year-old father of two, knows about the body's frailty; he nearly lost three fingers on his left hand to an industrial wood shaper in 1993. Three years later, with eight surgeries and only two of the three digits restored to functioning, a hopeful surgeon borrowed a tendon from his forearm, resulting in renewed life for Schmidt's lame index finger. Through it all, the designer got an unwanted glimpse into a world he would never have chosen on his own.

Schmidt, speaking by phone from his home in Baltimore, Md., recalls his accident with chilling precision.

"It was a Friday afternoon, three o'clock. I was working on a complicated shaping operation, curving the arms of some chairs. My daughter Allie had been born the week before, and I was not operating on a whole lot of sleep. It happened so fast. The machine cut through the bones and tendons, took off my index, middle and ring finger; they were hanging just by tissue. I don't recall the pain, but I had a sickening feeling that life would never be the same. I've had nightmares of the precise sound of the machine--it's hard to describe, kind of like a jet engine."

Precision is something Schmidt knows a lot about from more than 25 years in his field. After three years in and out of operating rooms and endless waiting through the tedium and pain of rehabilitation, Schmidt's fascination with precision and design began to shift toward the human body--the greatest design of all--and those tools that care for it and its recovery.

While undergoing surgeries and rehabilitation, Schmidt imagined what the tools on the doctor's silver trays were designed for, a game he plays with any tool he's never seen before. He helped doctors create specific splints for his hand, knowing from a designer's point of view where his fingers needed more or less support. It was also an opportunity to get to work with the modern thermal plastic they use for splints, known as polyform, which turns into spaghetti in 125 degree water and dries nearly instantly on the body. "It has endless sculptural possibilities," he says with energy in his voice. "Artists are always looking for material or ideas."

Having a hand injury also caused Schmidt to notice other people's hands, or lack thereof, everywhere he went.

"When we see people with problems, we tend to look away, ignore the missing limb, not talk about it," he says. "When I had an obvious contraption on my hand, it drew a lot of people out who had similar accidents. I would feel compelled to ask people what was up with their hands, and it evoked interesting conversations.

"Once I saw a young man being fitted for a pinching clip in place of a hand," Schmidt continues. "I couldn't help but imagine myself in his situation, and I thought I'd rather have a carved rosewood device, something with elegance, not this steel and plastic, so alien, even scary."

Schmidt's desire to humanize the alien world of medical science resulted in his decision to enroll in nursing school so that he could both help design prosthetics and assist in surgery upon the perfect miracle of the human body.

A master craftsman driven by "process and form" in his work, it's easy to imagine how to make Schmidt unhappy. You could settle for those impersonal canes, those flimsy devices of support lined up next to hemorrhoid pillows and plastic bedpans at any pharmacy.

"When elderly people have trouble walking, they're given a crudely constructed metal cane capped with rubber," he says sadly. "It does everything it is supposed to do but it looks temporary and it gives the person the sense that they are temporary, too. It achieves its goal, but diminishes the person."

This crossroads of returning dignity and enhancing utility through design, joined with the realities of his life after the accident, have propelled Schmidt into what might appear to be a divergent career path. "If you're a designer, you're always designing one way or another," he shrugs. "You don't cease to design just because you've moved from one course of life to another." Yet medicine seems to promise a new platform for his designs to take shape, offering up materials and techniques that the furniture business could never hope to provide.

Much of Schmidt's furniture and sculptural pieces were sold very successfully through galleries, where he did a large part of his business through commissions, which he considers "collaborations."

A series of his "Tallus" tables are the opposite of the temporary world of plastic and metal. Each table is slightly triangular, and you aren't sure whether you should dare to rest a drink on one or even, on the slightly shorter ones, a complacent buttock, their natural contours sloping down like a bicycle seat, their edges soft. What looks like it might be mahogany is actually a mixture of sawdust from various poetic-sounding woods: purple heart, ebony, blackheart and wenge, plus bronze and mica particulate, crushed walnut shell and ground green coffee beans.

"At heart my own designs are about exploration of form, material and texture. I like making objects that evoke a sense of intrigue, purpose and beauty that seems familiar, yet other. I have always liked the way objects branch, the transition of form at meeting places--twigs, bones, feathers, rivulets in the sand. Often I will put details in places that are not readily apparent, say, the underside of a chair rail or the edge of a table, a hidden drawer or compartment--something for people to find later as they use the piece."

Schmidt's not about to give up furniture making altogether, but his priorities have shifted.

"If you want to really scramble your hard drive, become a student at 45," he chuckles. "A lot of times when class has finished, particularly biology, I'm still sitting there, thinking--this is like being given the secrets to the universe! In terms of design, you couldn't ask for a better subject than the human body, right down to the molecular. It blows you away. I love suddenly having a whole different approach."

Perhaps in a decade, the Schmidt Line will be born, providing prosthetic limbs made of rosewood and mahogany, decorative splints for dignified cast-wearing and polyform sculptural tables that double as walkers for the unsteady, made to last.

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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