While the momentum to shift design away from its reliance on “universal” concepts continues to gain bandwidth, this study suggests there is still work to be done with graduate students, who will advance the laudable skills and acumen that multiplicity offers design. In recent years, growing numbers of design institutes and practitioners have referred to inclusivity and diversity as politically, socially, and, where it suits them, economically beneficial. But implementation has yet to be considered on a broad scale. The merits of cultural diversity add to the capacity and capability of institutes to graduate globally competent citizens,1 and this paper illustrates a pedagogical pathway that engages cultural acumen in a meaningful and authentic way to achieve this. This research introduces the Indigenous values and strategies imbued within visual-spatial languages, arguing they should, as a matter of historical correctness, be first and foremost acknowledged for their contributions to our aesthetic and built environs, and, secondly, valued for the renewed opportunities they offer design to recalibrate its cultural and ideological compass. This study aims to show that the inclusion of Indigenous tenets, specifically those of the Pacific region known as Moana,2 is not as much of a cultural or pedagogical stretch as one at first might think. In fact, this knowledge is already tacit, albeit overlooked in our modernist-led curriculum. Drawing analogies between Indigenous visual-spatial strategies and the roots of modernism, this research elucidates not only the relevance but the opportunity Indigenous knowledge holds for design thinking and practice.
The predicament lies in the fact that, unlike traditional art and craft, design as a discipline developed well after the colonial period; as such, design researchers have tended to disregard Indigenous cultures as having little to offer it. In recent years, however, design’s increased demand for diversity has called for a re-evaluation of this paradigm. For example, in support of a shift away from the homogeny of standardization, Alain Findeli has posited that twenty-first century design should further “open up the scope of inquiry.”3 Supporting such calls and drawing upon the cultural diversity extant within Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design Innovation cohorts, this study presents course work developed to enable New Zealand design students to gain appreciation for culturally inspired visual-spatial languages and an understanding of what these can offer their thinking and praxis. The Pasifika ideology of Ta-vā (tā meaning time and vā meaning space), further supported by developing an understanding of teu la vā as a sacred and unbreakable connection and te ao Māori (the Māori worldview), are central to this work.
Within Ta-vā, Hūfanga 'Okusitino Māhina explains, “People are thought to walk forward into the past and walk backwards into the future, both taking place in the present, where the past and the future are constantly mediated in the ever-transforming present.”4 Māhina also introduces the concept of eternal relationships through teu le vā, explaining that: “All things, in nature, mind and society, stand in eternal relations of exchange.”5 A central tenet of the Māori worldview is the notion that time is non-linear in nature, explained with the proverb ka mua ki muri, meaning to walk backwards into the future and consider connections to both people and place.
By drawing a parallel between the historical trajectories of reductive graphic codes and holistic ideologies espoused by both Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) and the Bauhaus (1919–1933) and those imbued in te ao Māori, Ta-vā, and teu le vā, this study exposes the connections between Indigenous ideologies and Bauhaus-inspired modernist design education, arguing that the acknowledgement, inclusion, and reflection of Indigenous acumen should not be considered an interesting historical or cultural deviation, but as itself containing ideologies, strategies, and visual-spatial languages deeply rooted in and highly relevant to the enrichment of design today. By using Indigenous knowledge, our students have identified and visually expressed both tangible and intangible connections to both past, present, and future, investigating the historic or traditional meanings and methods attached to the symbolism or strategies they have identified, and discerning relevant methods for expressing culture in contemporary and collective contexts.
The Backdrop and New Insights to Design’s History
Ornament speaks to us and about us through both figurative and rhythmic languages.6 In the production of form, the visualization of narratives, and the expression of both symbolic and pragmatic meanings, ornament has always been a fundamental tool. But as an article of culture, it has also been misunderstood and misused. Aesthetic education has celebrated the thinking and work of Vitruvius (c. 90–c.20 BCE), Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), pointing to the centuries that ensued, when the use of ornament flourished, as a highpoint in the development of ornament’s formal vocabulary, through to the late nineteenth century, when its extravagant use caused ornament, along with cultural, religious, and historic visual references to ornamentation, to be called into question. Reacting to the excesses of the Rococo style, the horrors of mass-production, and the widening economic social divide, the roles and responsibilities of ornament began to be scrutinized by theorists such as Owen Jones (1809–1874) and John Ruskin (1819–1900). Throughout the later part of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century Ruskin and Jones’ ideals attempted to imbue a more egalitarian and universal approach to education, one that would offer an understanding of aesthetic languages that was not owned or defined by class and ethnicity.
Subsequently, Adolf Loos (1870–1933) categorically scorned the use of ornament, labeling it degenerate and no less than a crime.7 Moreover, Loos’s criticism of “indigeneity as counteractive to the evolution of a modern culture devoid of primitive ornament”8 was among the earliest and most fanatical outbursts in the coming assault on ornament, leading to the elimination of ornament design from the curricula of schools of art and architecture.
One might argue that Loos’s argument was overly polemical. However, the political, personal, and economic discourse that besieged this period in design’s history reveals that despite his essay being an efficacious work of fiction rather than historical fact, his influence increased in the coming decades. So it seems opportune for this study to diverge away from the historical trajectory of modernism’s abolition of ornament to tread a not-so-teleological path illuminating a connection between Froebel’s theories, Ruskin and Jones’ manifestoes, the Bauhaus, and the visual spatial languages of Indigenous Pasifika and Māori cultures. To begin, Froebel’s instigation of aesthetic education informed Ruskin and Jones’ work, greatly contributing to the development of a modernist design pedagogy. Froebel was in turn inspired by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1847), and believed that incorporating simple visual and physical elements into pedagogy, alongside sensory learning, could achieve unity within struggling societies. Froebel thus approached education from both a biological and a spiritual perspective, formulating a reductive graphic code based on a sparse grammar of lines and curves, acknowledging relationships within space and building his pedagogy upon holistic, sensory, spatial, and social ideals. His work, like the Māori world view te ao Māori, embraced all things in nature as connected, offering an early linkage between Western thought systems and Indigenous knowledge. Froebel introduced—more correctly, re-introduced—values that emphasized, nurtured, and respected the individual, acknowledging their ongoing or intergenerational connection to a larger collective, whether family, community, or environment. As an aside, Buckminster Fuller would later reference this relationship within his Spaceship Earth concept.9
Froebel’s pedagogy has been credited as having had a direct influence on the inception of modernism; influencing Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (1883–1969) and his Vorkurs studio masters—Johannes Itten (1888–1967), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), and Lázsló Moholy-Nagy (1888–1967). It also influenced Le Corbusier, (1833–1965) Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), and Charles Eames (1907–1978), to name a few of the grandfathers of Western aesthetics.10 Froebel’s holistic, abstract theories had previously given traction to the reform programs of Ruskin and Jones, and were in the twentieth century developed by Itten and Moholy-Nagy at the historical Bauhaus, as well as inspiring the endeavors of Bauhaus émigrés after the school’s closure.11 These men have been credited with fashioning the bedrock of the modernist aesthetic and its pedagogy. Informing my research focus is the fact that, quixotically, neither the fields of architecture nor design in this period ever acknowledged the existence, influence, or impact of Indigenous visual spatial strategies, which predate the codified visual expressions and holistic strategies Froebel, Ruskin, and Jones developed as an expression of their discontent with the irrational, excessive, and visually meaningless. (Fig 1)