Building a reputation

Johnson Witehira has created Maori language building blocks.
Johnson Witehira has created Maori language building blocks.

A former Manawatu graphic designer has teamed up with an American company with the aim of taking Maori culture to toy boxes throughout New Zealand.

The world’s first Maori alphabet building block set is set to hit the shops in time for Christmas.

With its understated tri-colour aesthetic, graphic designer and former Manawatu man Johnson Witehira hopes it will be New Zealand’s next Buzzy Bee.

A selection of the building blocks.
A selection of the building blocks.

He has collaborated with American company Uncle Goose to produce a set of Maori alphabet blocks, complete with macron-capped vowels.

Believed to be the first in the world, they are made in America, but are being sold in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

Witehira, a Massey Maori Fine Arts PhD candidate, lives in Japan. He recently showcased his work in New York’s Times Square after winning a digital art competition.

He was cautious when the owner of Uncle Goose, which makes alphabet block sets in 19 different languages, approached him with the idea. 

But when they were offered on Kiwi designware site Cleverbastards several weeks ago, they sold out overnight.

‘‘If you’re making a Maori product, especially anything with important tupuna as seen on this set, then the blocks must have timelessness to them.

These had to be something that people will want to hold onto, and not just biff into the rubbish like any other children’s toy.’’

And his friends have great expectations for the design.

‘‘One of them said they could see this being the new Buzzy Bee. Though that wasn’t the intention, I do see this as a way of getting Maori culture into the homes of all New Zealanders. And it’s nice to see these blocks appeal to both Maori and Pakeha.’’

Wellington shop Iko Iko, which specialises in Kiwiana, will be one of the first to retail his design.

Iko Iko co-owner Thomasin Bollinger said she ordered the blocks because they had the makings of a classic.

‘‘The reason we chose them is because we are always looking for New Zealand-designed produce, and Kiwiana, that is different.

"We get sick to death of seeing the same stuff year and year again, and then we find something that is actually a bit different.’’

Manawatu Standard