More than a koru
Design reflects our heritage and i dentity. New Zealand’s design i dentity? Who i s
Georgina Harris explores what role Māoridom plays in New Zealand's desi gn i dentity
Māori culture, identity and values are the foundation of Aotearoa. And from the waka to the whare, design has always been integral to meet the needs of daily life, to inspire and communicate. In the past, it’s fair to say that this cultural heritage has largely been embraced in a token fashion; a ‘chuck a koru on it to tick that box’ mentality. But, increasingly, whether it’s Māori stories informing product design, cultural advisers informing the design of buildings and large infrastructure developments, or Māori design elements being authentically referenced and embraced by some of the country’s largest companies, that heritage is being recognised through proper processes and is being valued as a point of difference.
Idealog spoke with Māori and nonMāori practitioners – artists, creators, architects, graphic designers, advisors – to investigate New Zealand’s modern identity and how Māoridom is being manifested through design outputs. And speaking with artist, designer and educator Dr Johnson Witehira is to hear passion and knowledge come together in a creative light.
Witehira studied graphic design at the Whanganui School of Design and combined his love of art, imagery, design and computers. He graduated in 2004, going on to complete his masters in 2007.
His interest in Māori art and design led him to Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, the School of Māori Studies at Massey University, where he completed his doctorate in Māori design.
Witehira’s oeuvre of work is large and diverse, from a set of 24 Māori alphabet blocks to be used as visual learning aids, magazine covers, murals, to having a series of digital works exhibited on 34 billboards simultaneously in Times Square, New York for a competition run by Chorus.
His more recent work has been for companies such as the Auckland International Airport, New Zealand Transport Agency and the Wellington City Council.
When asked what Māori design is, Witehira says it’s a process more than a visual.
“It’s a pragmatic process too. You get some people who talk about Māori design in an eerie, spiritual way which bothers me as it’s almost like art-speak which mystifies rather than clarifies.”
He says for his own work he tries to ground things as much as possible.
“There’s a lot of complexity in the process, it’s about relationships.”
For the corporate and commercial projects Witehira undertakes, he works with mana whenua groups.
“As a designer I can respond to the client brief but also have the aspirations of mana whenua … the client comes with the brief, what I do is find Māori parallels and take them to mana whenua to discuss and to talk about which stories they want, or feel comfortable, sharing.”
Through his work at Unitec, Witehira illustrated the process to his students on a project called 'Inside the Aotearoa House'.
It looked to disrupt the status quo of Eurocentric positioning in education by bringing both Māori content and tikanga Māori into tertiary level studies – and asking the students to bring their own tikanga with them.
“It was around trying to consider what the inside of our homes might look and function if designed from bi-cultural perspective,” says Witehira. “We bought together five or six different disciplines [within Unitec] - from fine arts to contemporary craft to spatial design - developing ideas, concepts and things that might exist in our homes.”
He says Māori stories and narratives were used to help and inspire design instead of putting Māori design on things, with part of the challenge there was to be no koru.
A notable example he gave was of a student who designed a lamp based on the myth of Maui pulling up and manipulating the sun, a semi-circular structure where one pulls on the chord to turn on the bulb as if they are in the place of Maui.
Witehira says he thinks the students, and some of the staff, thought he was going to teach them ‘Māori design’, “but really we taught them to start thinking in the Māori way and researching the Māori world…they just started designing things from a Māori perspective.”
For Witehira, though he is now working on big projects which he says are “very good aspirational projects putting a vision out there”, he thinks where design changes us and reflects who we are back to us is the everyday stuff – be it a typeface or a toothbrush.
“It’s the banal, mundane stuff we use and interact with. For most designers those are very unsexy things – to me those are more important because we engage with them every day.”
Stop, collaborate and listen
Relationships were an important point mentioned again and again as integral as much to Māori design as to tikanga and identity.
International bi-annual art and design publication, Threaded Magazine, profiles and showcases emerging design talent alongside established studios and designers, both in New Zealand and overseas.
Kyra Clarke, Threaded’s design director, says the team works with iwi and elders, as well as people close to them to
I had [a corporate] client wanting a logo, wanting a koru, and I went back to them asking why they wanted that particularly design, if they knew the meaning behind it? They don’t necessarily care about the meaning–it’ s just a re- appropriaton of which they liked the look of. Kyra Clarke ————
ensure authenticity in their projects.
“I seek counsel a lot from [artist, designer and director] Desna WhaangaSchollum and from [craftsman, sculptor and design educator] Carin Wilson and from Ngā Aho [the society/network of Māori design professionals]. If we had crazy ideas we’d run it by them or my cousin or mum who bring their knowledge and experience.” Clarke says the latest edition of
Threaded Magazine, Edition 20, was exclusively dedicated to Māori art, design and mahi toi [art/craft] discourse.
Its theme was ‘New Beginnings’, centered around Matariki, and the notion of acknowledging past, present and future, featuring indigenous practitioners such as Janet Lilo, Lisa Reihana and Lonnie Hutchinson.
“We definitely had challenges with artists, translating the experience of their work or practice in to print – we had to set our own kawa (customs) for this project, communicating along the way with the artists so they trusted how it was being represented,” says Clarke.
She says the catalyst for Edition 20 was 16/2, a project Threaded was asked to do for Fedrigoni, an Italian paper merchant.
With an open-ended brief, something says Clarke was quite daunting, the only pre-requisite was that it represented New Zealand in some way.
“Our country is so diverse it was like ‘what do we do?’ So, we tried to go back to the essence of who we were, where we came from. I’m part-Māori and we had people that were non-Māori in the studio at the time, but it was that collaboration and our journey together exploring that, to represent our culture in a way that other people may get a nice introduction that was guided.”
Clarke says for 16/2 the team talked to elders as there were lots of myths or stories that weren’t able to be found online, and she really wanted to have a connection to the land, to where she came from, and to objects that represented something important within their lives and the studio.
“For 16/2, taking traditional elements of Māori culture/identity, and making it contemporary we pushed that more in Edition 20. We were exploring that notion – line work, linear work, motifs – and we open with same karakia in 16/2 as we do in Edition 20. In Māori culture it’s the use of repetition that makes things strong.”
Clarke says a collaborative process occurs when working with Māori clients.
“We’ve rebranded a marae and two hapu and those are very different approaches because you’re talking to the kaumatua, talking to the people. They walk with their design and anyone can contest it – it’s to be challenged or be accepted, that’s the way it works.”
She says it can be tough working with clients who don’t understand cultural appropriation.
“I had [a corporate] client wanting a logo, wanting a koru, and I went back to them asking why they wanted that particularly design, if they knew the meaning behind it? They don’t necessarily care about the meaning – it’s just a re-appropriaton of a Māori design of which they liked the look of.”
Clarke adds she has had to let clients go who are not prepared to go through a proper branding exercise to determine a visual solution/outcome.
A matter of principle
Craftsman, sculptor and design educator Carin Wilson lives in a beautiful home that doubles as his studio in Pukeruru, just past Mangawhai.
Wilson is a former president and fellow of the Designer’s Institute of New Zealand, was the founding chair of Ngā Aho and is an honorary holder of Toi Iho, the quality mark for Māori Arts (he also carved the wood that is featured on this issue’s cover).
The offspring of a Māori father and Italian mother, Wilson was one of many involved in the establishment of a set of seven principles, or guidelines, called the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles.
The principles were developed by Māori design professionals in 2006 as a response to the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol published by the Ministry for the Environment in 2005.
“Until that time New Zealand relied on the Ministry to determine for us what the definition of place was. We looked at them and went ‘no way’ and if it isn’t, what do we have to establish in its place?” says Wilson.
The seven principles – Mana (rangatiratanga – authority), Whakapapa (names and naming), Taiao (the natural environment), Mauri Tu (environmental health), Mahi Toi (creative expression), Tohu (the wider cultural landscape) and Ahi Kā (living presence) – are founded on intrinsic Māori cultural values and,
as per the Auckland Design Manual from the Auckland Council, “designed to provide practical guidance for enhancing outcomes for the design environment”.
They are now applied by Auckland Council, mana whenua authorities, private developers, and several architecture firms, including Jasmax, Warren & Mahoney, Woods Bagot and NH Architecture.
Wilson says the principles are beginning to influence the way design and place is thought about and have been adhered to for award-winning spaces like Toi o Tāmaki (Auckland Art Gallery) and Te Oro (the Glen Innes Music and Arts Centre).
“How do we define place? In a Māori sense it’s the idea of engagement and belonging.”
One architecture firm that’s abiding by the Te Aranga Principles is RCG Limited. Associate director Andy Florkowski and director John Lenihan point to RCG’s project Wai Ariki – a luxury spa and wellness center that will be located on the Rotorua lakefront with a Te Ao Māori focus – as a good example of combining the old with the new.
Ngāti Whakaue narratives and elements of Te Arawa and Māori culture will be throughout the development, both in the design of the building, as well as in its spa and wellness offerings.
The spa is being developed by Pukeroa Oruawhata Trust, which RCG shares a 25-year relationship with, in conjunction with spa and wellness provider Belgravia Leisure.
With Wai Ariki to showcase iwi Ngāti Whakaue’s legacy and Rotorua’s famed spa heritage, Florkowski says one of the first things RCG did was put forward that it would follow the Te Aranga Principles.
“The principles recognise the input of all parties. It’s not just the output, it’s the process you go through, it’s a thread that starts at the very beginning of a process,” says Florkowski.
He says the principles imbed the relationship with the land and people into the work.
“It’s about recognising and respecting everyone involved, environmentally, socially and economically.”
As Lenihan and Florkowski are nonMāori, they said the way they approach a project is crucial.
“[The] process and the way we follow certain methods is extremely
and you’re not l i ving within that culture, you have to be respectful and not i mpose, or borrow something without understanding i ts full meaning. John Lenihan ————
important, and to recognise that. There are lots of voices involved in these types of projects, and it’s important to listen to all,” says Lenihan.
“Design is quite tricky because if you’re not Māori and you’re not living within that culture, you have to be respectful and not impose, or borrow something without understanding its full meaning.”
Lenihan says there is always a lot of discussion and research required to get that understanding.
“Some of it is quite abstract and embedded into the design and some of it is more decorative and literal, and when we get into the decorative and literal we get into using Māori artists, crafts people and designers.”
He says RCG’s role is working together with iwi on the journey.
“They are effectively making the decisions and you’re just guiding them. [Wai Ariki] becomes an embodiment of the people, the process and the stories, which has an output through architecture.”
Lenihan says the locally hired staff will help form the identity of Wai Ariki.
“The people who are going to run the facilities will help communicate the stories of Te Arawa. This is definitely a living institution, it’s contemporary, and will take on its own story as it goes.”
For Witehira, while he thinks the Te Aranga principles are “really useful and a really good start”, he says that he thinks there needs to be more local iwi-specific, and design-specific versions of that text.
And he has decided to do something about it, establishing with two friends in December last year an organisation called Indigenous Design and Innovation Aotearoa (IDIA) designed to create indigenous solutions to commercial, social and environmental issues.
On IDIA’S website it states: “Through our mahi we aim to support indigenous growth and excellence and push back against the homogenising and colonising effects of globalisation and technology.”
Witehira says one of the projects the team is working on is an Aotearoa indigenous design charter to provide basic guidelines for anyone wanting to engage with Māori design in a broad way.
“Then we are wanting to do more pragmatic guidelines, or more specific - i.e. I’m a product designer or a spatial designer, what are things I need to know? What are stories I should I look at to inform my practices? We’re looking to develop these kinds of guidelines and resources for designers in New Zealand, not just Māori.”
Paying homage but transcending tradition
How do designers mix traditional and contemporary while retaining cultural meaning and identity? How do we display deep meanings without just slapping a koru on something or watering it down for tourists?
Carin Wilson’s artwork at the new Māori television office in Auckland is one example of weaving culture with modern-day design.
Working with RCG, Wilson, who was the art director of the original Māori Television office created in 2004, came back on board to create new artwork for the space.
One piece was a sculpture created for the reception area called ‘Te Haerenga’, a four-panelled contemporary take on a tukutuku (latticework panels) and stemmed from the idea of a wakahuia (treasure or feather box).
“The whole digital deconstruction of a traditional piece of tukutuku, it’s iconographic in the sense that you’ll always see that panel design in a Maori wharenui. There’s a small group of tukutuku designs that every weaver learns,” Wilson says. “We took tukutuku and looked at different materials, the building and colours and so on, figured out a way to recreate the tukutuku motif but bring it into a completely contemporary idiom.”
Threaded’s Clarke has recently moved home, back up north from Auckland. And when Māori clients ask her to see them for a korero about projects, she says she wonders what they will think when they see her.
“I do feel anxious that I don't look Māori. Hopefully our work transcends their first initial perceptions.”
She says getting the stories and representation right without looking 'token' is a big thing.
“…because they [iwi] walk with it and because it will be challenged by people. Once it’s accepted it feels like the biggest success, you’re actually seeing people use it. It’s definitely a sense of pride.”
Asking Clarke if she feels pressure and responsibility, she says she does but concentrates on the job at hand.
“You have to extract the information that is important and make sure you’re representing that graphically. It’s just usually more spiritual and usually more ‘real’. I can’t explain it, and it’s usually the work we’re most proud of.”
Witehira says he acknowledges in his mahi his Māori and Pākehā ancestry.
“It’s not just about making things more Māori for me, it’s about bringing balance to this dream that some of our ancestors had of Māori and Pākehā coming together in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and both of us benefitting from it. Obviously, that hasn’t played out as well as it could have, but for me it’s about bringing design into our daily life.”
For the Aotearoa House project, Witehira says the students – of which the majority were Pākehā - explored their own sense of identity through engaging with Māori culture.
“Everyone wants to figure out what their identity is, especially if you’re Pākehā – ‘I’m not British, I’m not European, I’m not tangata whena – there’s a lot of complexity around identity. That said that if you are a New Zealander, Māori culture is a part of who you are. The sooner you accept that and get comfortable with that, the easier it is being a New Zealander.”
Pākehā are often considered and concerned with engaging with Māori around design, says Witehira.
“They don’t want to do it inappropriately, do it the wrong way.
Fear holds people back – both for Māori and Pākehā. I’m urban Māori and people assume I’m a native speaker – only seeking out Māori design did I became engaged with my culture. I went through things – language learning, etc – to help me feel comfortable.”
There was a huge outcry when American popstar Rihanna got a Māori-inspired tattoo in 2013, done the traditional way, with chisel and mallet. Mike Tyson, Robbie Williams and Ben Harper have also all had Māori-inspired designs while in New Zealand.
This pushback picks up on important question to do with identity and culture: who is able to get, or display, designs, such as Ta Moko, especially if they have with no knowledge of the design, significance or tools used? And how do we ensure Māori heritage and culture is preserved correctly. Clarke says this a really hard question. “My own opinion is that you can’t preserve it, that once you put something out there anyone can take it, reappropriate it and reuse it. Look at Robbie Williams and Rihanna’s tattoos – if people say it’s not their right to have one, what if they come here and have an experience?” She gives the example of the 2016 film
Moana as an example of Polynesian/Māori design and elements being misused.
“They’ve gone on Pinterest, taken lots of elements and used [them] the wrong way but they tried and what can you do? As long as we’re true to ourselves and listen to the clients and visually represent what they are asking, we can only talk through the projects we’ve worked on.”
An interesting point brought up by Dr Witehira during our discussions was in relation to Māori cultural advisors.
He says when he started graphic design school he couldn’t find any Māori design role models.
“Where I found what we might call ‘sophisticated design’ was done by Pākehā designers with Māori cultural advisors.”
He says what’s problematic is that normally the cultural advisors might be fluent in Māori, may have grown up in a Māori community or environment but they might not know anything about Māori art or design.
“There’s the assumption as I’m Māori, so I know Māori design. Often, I think their backgrounds aren’t the right ones to be bringing into these projects but it’s still the norm for design agencies … the people that should be in the roles should be the ones with Māori art, architecture and design backgrounds or iwi involved in the project – the mana whenua. They are the ones who are giving me advice, the stories they want to share and feel comfortable sharing.”
Witehira says to improve this situation he believes there needs to be more support and scholarships for Māori to engage in design; to “present young Māori with opportunities for different futures”.
Space to grow
Looking at the New Zealand business scene, companies are increasingly dedicating space – both literal and mental – to Māori design and understanding the importance of integrating Māori culture into the business.
One example is architecture firm Warren & Mahoney, which set up Te Matakīrea – the advanced Māori
It’s not j ust about making things more about bringing balance to this dream that some of our ancestors together i n Aotearoa, New Zealand, and both of us benefitting from i t. Obviously, that hasn’t played out as well as i t could have, but for me i t’s about bringing design i nto our daily l i fe. Dr Johnson Witehira
Design Unit – in 2016 with the help of Ngata Tapsell.
The goal of Te Matakīrea is to explore architectural opportunities “that are ambitious, modern and yet thoroughly grounded in the Māori world”, ensuring Māori values and ideas are embedded within projects from day one.
The unit has worked on projects so far for He Puna Karikari (Lincoln Hub) in Christchurch and Te Waonui O Te Mātauranga (Manukau Institute of Technology) and is made up of what Tapsell says is a true cross-section of modern New Zealand.
Tapsell, an associate at the firm, worked internationally for 12 years before returning home with ideas and experiences from working on projects for a number of indigenous and nonWestern cultures.
He says one of the great challenges he faced upon his return was how does his culture, with 1000-odd years of history in New Zealand, embrace the modern world in a way that is grounded in that history and tradition, but not restrained by it?
“If a culture does not grow to embrace the new and unknown, it risks irrelevance.”
Keen to explore the deepest conceptual underpinnings of Te Ao Māori, their architectural implications and their relevance in the modern world, Tapsell wants Te Matakīrea to ask the difficult questions about what it means to be Māori or indeed a New Zealander in 2018 and beyond.
“We should be challenging our clients to think of architecture as an opportunity for cultural growth … to us, the Māori world view is inextricably linked to New Zealand’s architectural identity.”
While the unit is new, Tapsell is quick to say Te Matakīrea is not a box-ticking exercise for Warren and Mahoney.
“As a practice we feel a great responsibility to advance New Zealand socially and culturally through architecture, and to do that we need to be pushing some boundaries … Our focus is on new design outcomes for a new world, while understanding and respecting the journey to date. It’s a big challenge but we have a team of talented and driven individuals who are up to the task.”
Air New Zealand and Designworks took home the Ngā Aho Award at the 2017 Best Awards for Te Tohu, a pin meant to identify te reo Māori speakers in the cabin crew.
The Designworks team chose a traditional carver’s approach melded with modern design, with a waha (mouth) meant to signify the oral origins of te reo Māori, while still leaving the overall design open to individual interpretation.
Much of the Tohu was designed by expert carver Clive Fugill at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, Te Puia, in Rotorua, with the process of commissioning and launching the pins taking about a year and involving partnerships with groups including Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission).
Andrew Baker, Air New Zealand’s cultural development manager, told Idealog in November that the design collaboration will hopefully help preserve the very bedrock of Aotearoa’s culture.
“The Tohu is not only a symbol to identify te reo Māori speakers, but also one that acknowledges the importance of te reo Māori to us all, and champion its growth and prosperity into the future. This project highlighted the fundamental role that design has to play in protecting and communicating our New Zealand identity.”
In the publishing arena The Spinoff launched Ātea, a dedicated Māori perspectives section on its site in October last year. Editor Leonie Hayden spoke to
StopPress two weeks after the launch, explaining that as Ātea’s mission is to have the indigenous perspective as the default, all contributors will be Māori, or identify strongly with Māori communities.
When asked her thoughts on Māori representation in mainstream media, Hayden says she sees it as a “two steps forward, one step back” type situation.
She says while mainstream media can have the best of intentions, “announcing they will spell te reo Māori correctly by using macrons”, they then use the freedom of speech, “to defend their right to publish racist cartoons.”
However, Hayden says there is progress being made.
“During Māori Language Week there is amazing content being produced all around the country, and once it’s over you see Māori commentators and different people being used. Each time you do see a tiny improvement, yet we are all responsible for a big improvement.”
She commended RNZ, in particular Morning Report presenter Guyon Espiner, for using te reo, saying “a non-Māori broadcaster using reo, it’s normalising it for people”. RNZ has taken stand and committed to using the language. And the current debate over making te reo Māori compulsory in schools shows that New Zealanders are at least thinking about the issue – and recognising the culture.
He Tangata, he tangata, he tangata Collaboration, process, respect and telling stories are all integral parts of Maori design and identity in New Zealand.
Clarke believes that embracing the modern and offering work that has a contemporary twist is the future.
“You can look at most other Māori designers that are pushing the boundaries – people like Johnson Witehira, Lisa Reihana and Shane Hansen – they are really trying to operate in a space that is paying homage to, but transcending, tradition.”
Witehira himself sums it up nicely: “We may look back to Europe and America – I look to those two too because I love their design – but if we want to find ourselves we have to find it here.”
Top left: A project Threaded Studio did for Fedrigoni, an Italian paper merchant. (see page 40 for more images)
Top left: Johnson Witehira's Noisewalls for NZTA, Photo: Jared Clark. Bottom right: Journey of the Sun lamp by Jango Van Rijk. Rest of page: Carin Wilson, his work 'Te Haerenga' for Māori Television's new building and his studio.