Joanne Tilley held up her arm — a silver hook attached to a plastic, cone-shaped base — and grimaced.

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Joanne Tilley held up her arm — a silver hook attached to a plastic, cone-shaped base — and grimaced.

“It’s your standard World War II hook,” she said. “But that’s what’s out there.”

Tilley’s left arm looks like something you would use to hang a coat or pry something open. It’s a little painful to look at, and more than painful in its limitations, I’m sure.

“It’s painful in its appearance only because it could be so much more interesting and so much more functional,” Tilley said.

She isn’t impressed by recent innovations, like hands and feet made of medical-grade silicone.

“Hyper-realistic,” Tilley called them. “We want to replace what is lost with exactly what you had. But that can’t be done; you can’t replace a part of you, flesh and bone.”

So last fall, Tilley approached Magnus Feil, a mutual friend and an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Industrial Design program.

Instead of having his senior students come up with a better design for a cellphone, why not extend the design reach of prosthetic limbs? The 10-week exercise would prepare them for their senior projects, in which they have to demonstrate all the techniques they have learned.

“I always like to do things that have an impact, and the field of prosthetic limbs hasn’t been explored,” Feil said. “This was a great occasion to do something of value, something that can really have a benefit.”

Tilley visited the class to show them the challenges she faces every day. She and Feil also talked about the history of prosthetics — even how they appear in movies like “The Fugitive” and “Inspector Gadget.”

“Our goal was to make something stylish and elegant and functional that you would be proud of wearing,” Feil said.

As part of their research, students taped their hands and put their arms into copper tubes, then tried to perform daily activities like getting mail from a mailbox. They studied videos of people using brooms and peeling apples.

Student Stephen Stum created a prosthetic arm with a slider function that opens and closes slowly enough to give the wearer time to clamp it to something. The forearm features a joint that swivels, and a neoprene base that takes weight off the natural arm.

“The project changed my point of view,” said Stum, 28. “It let me know that designing projects that interact directly with people can be more difficult, but also a lot more rewarding.

“You can empower people and make them feel better about themselves.”

Their creations will be displayed at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the UW’s School of Art. An opening reception will be held at 6 p.m. Friday and the exhibit will be open on Saturday.

Tilley would like to take her challenge not only to other schools, but to designers.

“What if Kenneth Cole designed an arm?” she wondered. “What if Apple made a limb?

“We get in this mindset that all the cool things have been done.”

And she would like to see those new designs reach not only those in the United States — injured soldiers are returning home every day, we all know — but other places where people are being blown apart or injured in natural disasters. Haiti. Afghanistan. Sierra Leone.

“I want to find a way to leverage these projects into tangible goodness,” Tilley said. “And offer people other options for how to define their bodies.”

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or

She has a new appreciation. Thanks.