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This year’s Core77 Design Awards included our very first edition of the Editor’s Choice Prize. Our team of editors ultimately chose Liquidplant as the winner, a progressive materials project that directly tackles the issue of microplastics, but there were many excellent projects we considered as finalists. In a series of upcoming articles, we will explore these projects and what makes them an outstanding example of design in 2023.
Maori Design Specialist Dr. Johnson Witehira’s journey to realizing the award-winning Paku gardening tool began when he noticed the tools used by children at Maori early education centers. Despite the rich cultural context these cultural institutions provided, these tamariki (children) were still engaging with European tools in the gardens and sandpits. This observation sparked a thought-provoking question: What if the children could connect with their Maori identity and Te Ao Maori (the Maori world) in a tactile way through tools that truly represented who they were? Thus, the seeds of Paku were sown.
The manifestation of this idea came in the form of Paku Toki and Timo, modern reinterpretations of traditional Maori agricultural tools once prevalent in Aotearoa (New Zealand). The underlying motivation was simple yet profound: to provide children with objects that would nurture their connection to their indigenous Maori and Pakeha New Zealand heritage. In a country where product design has predominantly reflected imported settler culture, Paku stands as a counterbalance, shining a spotlight on Maori knowledge through contemporary design.
The development of the Toki and Timo spanned over two years, guided by a deep desire to engage meaningfully with matauranga Maori (Maori knowledge) and Maori communities. The initial stage involved sharing prototypes with various Maori spaces, including kohanga reo and wananga institutions. “We gave the prototypes to a select group of Maori experts in Design, education and agriculture,” the Paku design team said in their awards entry about the design process. “The response to the research was resoundingly positive. So, with support from our communities, we began to dive deeper into developing and refining the products.”
Throughout the design process, children were at the heart of their journey. By observing how they interacted with different prototypes in diverse settings, the team gained profound insights that inspired them to create a scaled-down version of older Maori gardening tools.
In adherence Paku’s commitment to sustainability and Maori values, the team sought a partnership with a local manufacturer and embraced the use of recycled materials. By identifying a waste stream from an existing product and repurposing the plastic through grinding, they found a way to minimize landfill waste and uphold their values.
With the Paku Toki and Paku Timo, children now have the opportunity to dig into the whenua (land) with tools that embody their cultural heritage. The journey of Paku represents more than just gardening; it is a pathway to self-discovery, identity, and a profound connection to Maori culture. Through these innovative tools, Paku aspires to empower the next generation, fostering a deep appreciation for their cultural roots and a sense of belonging to Te Ao Maori.
The Core77 editorial team bookmarked this project as especially notable for its powerful application of design as a tool to preserve and pass on culture, and the projects’ emphasis on challenging persistent Eurocentric ideals in design. Paku represents a future of design that is not solely informed by dominant Western perspective, and the potential for indigenous wisdom to influence design philosophies and processes.