A touch of Te Ao Māori in a children’s sandpit

A Māori design specialist and a Pākehā design engineer have put their skills together in a design studio called Paku aimed at creating uniquely Aotearoa products.

Paku combines mātauranga Māori with the latest technologies to reimagine objects in a bicultural way.

Dr Johnson Witehira (Ngāti Hinekura, Ngāi Tuteauru and James Prier had known each other since high school but had gone their own ways in different disciplines, Witehira in graphic design and gaining a PhD while Prier became a design engineer.

“When Johnson and his whanau came around to our house for dinner one night, he noted that there was nothing in our world that our children could relate to from their Māori experience. ‘What are they using that could link to mātauranga Māori?’ he asked,” Prier recalled.

Witehira said he had come from his son’s kohanga reo where he was watching the children play in the sandpit.

“Everything they were playing with, towels, spades, etc were European,” he said.

“I’d seen our own tools in the whare taonga.”

Gardening tools a hit

So the first Paku design was gardening tools for children.

But Prier said, while they wanted them for their own children, they realized other children in Aotearoa would like them.

They set up a kickstarter, meant to raise $12,000 to cover costs, but ended up raising $52,000.

“We were stoked,” Witehira said.

The kickstarter had people buying the tools for their children – or buying them and donating them to their kohanga reo or early childhood centre, which he said really took off.

Prier said when they talked to kindergarten and kohanga reo teachers they found the children liked the new tools but asked for a story about them. That led to Paku creating a book featuring a grandfather visiting his mokopuna saying “I’ve got tools for you. We didn’t just invent the waka and weapons.”

Now the pair have put their heads together to think about more products. “Every day we see new opportunities,” Witehira said.