Doing Maori design - the right way

  • Johnson

Johnson Witehira has given up getting angry about all the abuses to Maori culture wrought by poor design. Bad examples are everywhere and thinking about it too much is not a pathway to happiness.

Instead he is channelling his energy into creating good Maori design, steeped in tikanga Maori, and mentoring a new breed of “obsessive design freaks” like him to help meet a burgeoning demand.

Witehira joined Unitec’s department of Design and Contemporary Arts as a Matauranga Maori education advisor in August. Trained in classical design and with a doctorate in Maori art, Witehira’s role is to help design staff and students incorporate Maori components in their work in an appropriate and meaningful way. He will also develop and teach courses in Maori art and design.

Witehira specialises in print-based work but turns his hand to all sorts – product, fashion, street art, books and theatre.

“Anything where Maori design is I’m interested in it,” he says. “One thing I’m really interested in and want to teach is how people can apply that traditional knowledge in a contemporary way, that’s kind of the challenge.”

Bringing Maori design to greater prominence is the mission. Witehira says while art forms like carving and ta moko are relatively well understood and respected in New Zealand, the role of contemporary Maori design is not as revered.

This is odd considering how intrinsic design is to Maori culture and something he would like to remedy.

“One thing I talk about lots is that before our Pakeha ancestors arrived everything in the Maori world had design in it, from the fish hooks to the vehicles - the waka - to their homes, their clothes, the people,” he says. “Everything in the lived space had design elements on it and all those things, sometimes in a subtle way, told stories and connected back to that identity of being Maori.

“And now all the objects that come into our world are totally disconnected from that idea of being Maori.”

Witehira wants to restore that connection and make Maori design a commonly seen feature of New Zealand’s physical and cultural landscape, whether it’s on the label of the peanut butter he buys at the supermarket, the wallpaper in homes or the clothes we wear.

But before those dreams can become reality more designers need to be proficient in how to create and use Maori design properly. Getting it right is not easy or simple. Through his own practice and in his new role as a lecturer Witehira is setting guidelines for how Maori forms and motifs should be used in design, something he looked at for his doctorate.

“All Maori art and design is informed by a small number of key narratives. If you become familiar with those narratives it is easier to produce Maori art and design.

“Each normally speaks to specific art form. If you learn about the narrative behind carving, like the story of the origins of carving, you can get an understanding about how Tangaroa is the deity associated with carving and with that you can look at the patterns, which might be for instance associated with fish.

“Being familiar with these stories helps you understand the broader meaning in lots of this imagery.”

Witehira says there is huge demand from both government departments and marketers for Maori design. This is great and something he wishes to see continue.

“In terms of marketing a lot of companies want a piece of that Maori mythology, especially for that global market where it’s huge. If businesses do want to do that and have that connection they need to make sure it’s a real one.

“There’s these things that people just don’t think about, and it’s not to say Maori objects can’t be on these things, they totally can, but it’s about doing it the right way.”

Visit to see examples of Johnson Witehira’s work and read about his design philosophy.