14 Jun ‘Architecture and design should be for everyone’: Yinka Ilori’s colourful world | Art and design
Walking into Yinka Ilori’s west London studio from the drab suburban business park outside is to enter an oasis. Floor-to-ceiling shelving is lined with the brightly coloured, upcycled chairs, painted or upholstered in West African fabrics, that made Ilori’s name when he first left college. Lush houseplants are dotted around and a portrait of his smiling grandmother sits behind his desk, resplendent in a gele, a traditional head tie. He refers to the picture as we talk about his family’s influence on his work.
“My work is very much about inclusivity and how people enjoy design,” says the 33-year-old. There is also a sense of story, of people communicating, something that started at London Metropolitan University when he was in his second year studying product and furniture design. He was set a project called Our Chair, which referenced Italian designer Martino Gamper’s 100 Chairs in 100 Days (Gamper transformed 100 discarded chairs into entirely new, brilliantly sculptural pieces).
“That was my introduction to Gamper in 2008,” says Ilori. “I thought it was incredible: old objects, new stories, new functions. Simple, but so powerful. That’s what I love – storytelling and exploring memories through design.”
Ilori ran with the idea. He scavenged chairs from skips and picked up those dumped on the street. He also incorporated his own history into his designs. Ilori is British with Nigerian parents: his father, a manager for B&Q, and his mother, who first ran a corner shop – “I was very popular with my friends as we’d get our sweets after school” – and now cooks professionally for large events, raised Ilori and his two brothers and sister on an estate in north London.
“You’re told you are Nigerian at home, but then you go to school and you’re British,” he says. “I lived in Essex Road in Islington, which is a really multicultural neighbourhood and that was nice, so I had the best of both worlds. But it was only when I visited Nigeria that I really got it. I got it that respect is hugely important for my parents: the culture, the language. I get why my parents wear a lot of colour. I understand their journey, their graft. I tried to complain less and respect the fact that they could leave Nigeria and start afresh. And so surely I can make something of myself here? That’s what I try to do.”
His Nigerian heritage also appears in his designs. The parables that his parents told him as a child became an inspiration, the morality tales taking on new meaning now he was working to make a career for himself. Some chairs referred to the idea of hierarchy, the huge divide between rich and poor he saw firsthand in Nigeria. For some seats, he’d imagine very particular stories for their owners. Histories based on people he’d known at school who were headed for trouble, boys who had been abandoned by teachers, boys who didn’t fit in because English wasn’t their first language.
Post-degree and after a three-month internship with the furniture designer Lee Broom (“I learned a lot from him”), Ilori applied for a £3,000 loan from the Prince’s Trust, wrote a 10-page business plan, and was off. “I wanted to be in the design industry, so I went away to work out who I wanted to be and how I was going to tell my story.”
Johanna Agerman Ross, curator of 20th century and contemporary furniture and product design at the V&A, nominated Ilori to take part in a project with the Danish textile brand Kvadrat . “I discovered Yinka when he was working with the Restoration Project, a charity in east London that brought together people in need of respite from difficult circumstances to restore old furniture. For me it was a simple, but effective way of using design as a communication and interaction tool. It’s clever and intuitive and, for me, really sums up Yinka.”
The Kvadrat project is a group exhibition showcasing furniture created by 28 different designers using its Febrik material – Ilori’s project focuses on interaction: a key theme for the British-Nigerian designer. “We’ve created a crosshatch, four-way bench,” he explains. “In a public space you might find a bench fixed to the ground and that’s it. This is created so that four people can sit on it and change it around. It allows them to engage.” The upholstered seat is called A Trifle of Colour and is covered in Febrik’s ice cream-sprinkle pattern fabric. It has wooden backrest spindles that can be moved or removed altogether so that users can face in or turn away for their own space.
Agerman Ross thinks the way Ilori proclaims his culture in such a forthright way is positive. “He foregrounds his British-Nigerian heritage so strongly – that’s one of the first things he says about himself when he presents his work. The design scene as a whole tends to focus on the northern hemisphere and there isn’t enough interaction with different cultures. In that regard Yinka as an artist is a really positive presence.”
During a speech Ilori gave at the South African Design Indaba festival in 2017, so his audience might better understand his Nigerian background and its important to his work, he recreated one of his parents’ house parties on stage during his lecture. Kenyan musician “Blinky” Bill Sellanga DJed, and fellow lecturers and audience members danced. His vision of Nigerian culture feels celebratory and joyous, and that is apparent in his work. There’s a sense of Nigerian sunlight, energy, music and family in the forms, colours and patterns of just about everything he designs.
“I’ve also grown up watching my mother and grandmother style themselves. How confident and bold they were with colour combinations. It’s beautiful.”
Ilori founded his four-person studio in 2017 and the last few years have proved transformational for the designer and his team. A very conscious move from being known as the “guy who does colour” and upcycling (a word that Ilori isn’t fond of: “I prefer pre-loved”) to taking on public projects on a greater scale.
In June 2019 there was a playground installation for Pinterest shown at the Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity, which encouraged adults to cut loose and play, followed by an immersive exhibition design at Somerset House in London for Get Up, Stand Up Now – a show celebrating 50 years of black creativity in the UK. Ilori also created the highly successful Happy Street, a permanent enamel-panelled installation under a bridge in Battersea’s Thessaly Road, after winning a competition run by the London Festival of Architecture and the local council. And last summer he won another contest with The Colour Palace , a wooden pavilion inspired by Lagos markets, installed in the grounds of the Dulwich Picture Gallery during the festival. It has given Ilori a taste for more architectural-scale projects.
“There’s a great honesty and integrity in his approach and a real belief in the ability of good design and colour to uplift a place and uplift people,” says Tamsie Thomson, the festival’s director, who commissioned Happy Street and The Colour Palace. “That’s why he won both competitions. The underpass was hideous. It’s right next to a school and is heavily used by pedestrians. The impact that a piece like his has on improving everybody’s daily life is huge.
“From the London Festival of Architecture’s perspective, that’s really important to us – improving the everyday. Yinka and I have a standing joke that he’s not going to be happy until he’s done an airport, but that’s where I can see it ending up, with really significant commissions way beyond the level he’s getting now,” she says.
Ilori’s confidence is rising as his projects increase in scale and ambition. “I like the idea of doing civic projects, but wasn’t sure that I could do it until now. Before doing the underpass in Battersea, I was scared of working with engineers and architects, but having done it and then the pavilion, I’m really hungry for more. I love that people will have access to my work – that makes me really happy. Architecture and design should be for everyone.”
Ilori’s 2020 has been rerouted like everyone else’s. Projects have been pushed back or fallen away during lockdown. “But actually I’ve been looking at how to use this time positively,” he says when we speak in May. “I’ve spent a lot of time developing ideas during these months of being forced to slow down and evaluate.”
Time alone in his studio has led to the development of a homeware range. “I’ve been meaning to do it for ages – plates, bowls, trays and mugs – people have also been asking for upholstery fabric so we’re working on that.”
He has also created a public art installation in response to Covid-19 in support of the NHS in a poster space at Blackfriars in Southwark. It’s inspired by sketches for the A&E department at Chelsea & Westminster hospital. The message, written in vibrant pink, is the perfect message from Ilori: “Better days are coming, I promise”.
• Knit! by Kvadrat will be launched at Denmark’s 3 Days of Design in September