Co-creators, Niko Leyden and Kemi Whitwell aka Kemi Niko & Co.

Website or Instagram

Who or what did you want to be when you grew up?

I (Niko) don’t think I really knew what the options were growing up. We lived on the West Coast where most people were mums, retired or unemployed. But I do remember falling in love with magazines at an early age and wanting to design them, although it wasn’t until high school design class that I realized this was a job you could actually do. Kemi always knew he wanted to be an artist, but I don’t think earning a living came into the equation for him either, haha!

What is your professional background?

I studied 4 years of graphic design at Massey on a whim (I didn’t think I was good enough to get in) which was the best silly decision I’ve ever made. Kemi was studying Fine Art there too, when we met as flat-mates. Ever since then we’ve been determined to make a living from our combined forces of those degrees, working hospo and freelance jobs on the side before we finally made it a full time living 2 years ago.

When do you feel the most creative or inspired?

In nature. We make sure we get away from technology and into wilderness as often as possible, to let our minds breathe. Our art practice encompasses all aspects of our lives and this is the best way to take a clear break. Of course, right now we are working in nature a fair bit so the lines are blurred, but the peace of nature never lets us down.

When are you happiest?

When a project is flowing well and we can start to visualize the results. Though, the thing we’ve found with happiness is that you must embody it, before you are given a reason. I clearly remember the moment I realized this, during university, walking to my cinema job. Life doesn’t just let you be happy, you have to put in self effort towards cultivating that mindset of peace and contentment. Only then will your life start giving you good reason to say ‘Yay!’

What’s the best stress relief advice you’ve ever been given?

“When in Doubt, Zoom Out”. If everything looks like chaos maybe you just need to breathe and take a step back. A pattern may emerge that will guide you forward. If not, just enjoy the view.

What is your most treasured possession?

Hmmm good question. I feel like I should know the answer to that as I have gone through all of our essential belongings at least 5 times in the last 6 months, as we move between house-sits. It’s the things I can throw away I feel good about. Right now, though, I’d say my new Chloe Rose Taylor earrings, they are what I miss most when I forget to pack them!

What is the most important thing life has taught you thus far?

Wow, that changes everyday. Last night I was thinking about myself a year or so ago and it was the most surreal feeling, almost like vertigo. Technically a year isn’t that long but ‘2018 me’ feels eons away from ‘me’ today. I’ve never experienced such dissonance before, so I must have grown a lot in that time. Today’s lesson is about trusting my intuition – things have a way of working out when you are on the right path.

What is your number one business tip for surviving (and thriving) in your industry?

Believing in yourself. The world is full of ‘no’ people and ‘no’ situations but if you keep diving within and re-focusing on the direction your heart is taking you, you will reach the right place. Worrying about other peoples’ directions or feeling sore for not going the way you thought you should go, is just a waste of time. If you can find others that are also going their own way and your paths happen to sync up, then you are onto a great thing.

What is your big project or goal for 2020?

This year we have been given a very clear direction, despite what we had planned for ourselves. We have been commissioned by the New Zealand Festival to create Urban Hut Club. This new public art project has us based on the Kāpiti Coast building five tiny huts in parks and beaches along the coast. It’s a huge move for us, we feel very blessed.

Who or what is inspiring you at the moment?

Right now we’re staying in an architect friends bach and their book collection is very inspiring. Specifically, ‘Design Like You Give a Damn’ on emergency housing and another on micro architecture.

What do you continually ask yourself?

When sourcing materials – is there a salvaged / free option we can utilize? Often this is the first step in our design process. Today we were given a huge bunch of hazel rods which we will design one of our huts around. There is a massive abundance of waste materials out there that add invaluable character (and are often free), so we avoid buying new as much as possible.

Who do you collaborate with best?

Collaboration is new for us. We collaborate well together but this is based on years of work and a foundation of trust and love. We love working with communities but find it hard to let go of certain controls, so working with other creatives is something we are trying to get better at. We know we can only grow if we create a bigger team, so we leap on opportunities that present themselves. Urban Hut Club is already connecting us to many great people!

Who has challenged you to be better than you once were?

Our daughter. She is a very real reminder that we need to act with love and not let our stress wreak havoc on our support systems. We are a very tight team of three which constantly pushes us to be our best selves.

How does courage manifest in your work?

In every way. The fact we can even do what we do (and survive) is based on courage. We have always felt like we had no option than to follow art as a career. For no logical reason other than to survive. It seems weird to say that; it probably comes off as privileged. We met each other at a time when we needed to band together or scary adult life would have eaten us up. We are both walking our own paths and we are grateful every day that our paths have synced up because we can go twice as far that way. And now we have another human to bring along and we have no idea where we might end up. Yikes, that’s terrifying! Thanks for making us think about it lol

When has mentorship played a role in your life?

One of my greatest wishes is to have an official mentor. I want to be paid to learn (wow, radical idea there eh, boomer?). I want my teachers to be paid for a skill that is invaluable to the world. The reality is we have so many mentors, and we honor them in as many ways as we can. We are hugely blessed to live amongst so many great artists and free thinkers.

What one thing do you think would improve gender equality in New Zealand?

See above. Paid mentorship. Cancel high school and pay mentors imo. Those young people are highly motivated; inspire their sense of purpose; give them a means and we’re away laughing (or just not drowning).

Check out the Urban Hut Project as part of the NZ Festival