Having made a big splash on the scene and dubbed as one to watch for 2017, chair designer Yinka Ilori tells us how faith and West African heritage inspire his colourful designs, along with why he’s pioneering the end of London’s waste culture
Words: Rachel Mantock
Sat in a tiny, snug coffee shop filled with tastefully weathered furniture by Stamford Brook Station, chair designer of the moment Yinka Ilori sits across from me thoughtfully taking in his menu options. Astonishingly down to earth with not even a trace of art world pretentiousness, something that he will later come to tell me he hates, you would never guess that by day he continually turns the design scene on its head with his cool up cycled furniture.
Thinking about the root of his creativity, Ilori describes his upbringing as religious, having been raised in the Anglican Church. He jokes: ‘I don’t go to church as much anymore because I don’t have anyone saying “It’s Sunday, it’s 11 o clock, get up”, but it has really influenced the way I design and think creatively, as it was such a big part of my childhood.’
His bold chair designs each have a story to tell, with symbolic elements of hope, prosperity and miracles woven into them, inspired by Ilori’s experiences as a young boy. His most recent exhibition, A Swimming Pool of Dreams, inspired by his nostalgia for sunny coastal beach visits, reminiscent of trips he used to take as a child, took place in Clerkenwell as part of the Design Undefined show, featuring six brand new quirky chairs.
Most notably, his chairs all carry his signature stamp, a concoction of vibrant contrasting colours and patterns that resemble traditional Nigerian attire, something that has been a part of Ilori’s cultural fabric forever, bringing about feelings of happiness and pride. He was commissioned to design 60 chairs for Milan Design Week a year ago, at the last minute. So stunned by this fantastic opportunity, he said yes before considering the impossible time constraints. But he soon came up with a creative solution.
The idea was, you bring your own chair in and design it, drawing inspiration from parables, as I do with traditional Nigerian parables
‘I had a moment of weakness and just thought, it’s too much, I can’t do it,’ he admits. ‘In the end, I did a workshop instead, called The Art of Storytelling. The idea was, you bring your own chair in and design it, drawing inspiration from parables, as I do with traditional Nigerian parables. The whole project happened by accident, but the most rewarding things often happen that way.’
Existing as one piece of the African Diaspora, he brings a new type of thinking to design, a wonderful fusing of Nigerian and British culture woven together with his innate knack for seeing art where others don’t. His discerning eye is the reason he can turn trash into treasure, skilfully crafted chairs rising from the carcass of something someone threw away.
People on the streets will just whip up these amazing handmade sculptures and no one thinks anything of it
Flying back and forth between Nigeria and the UK often, he’s constantly stunned by the wealth of design talent in the former, and more so everyone’s indifference to it. He says: ‘People on the streets will just whip up these amazing handmade sculptures and no one thinks anything of it.’
With the design scene now being more globally connected than ever before, the talented designer has big hopes for the future when it comes to the relationship between the London and Nigerian art scenes, noting grime artist, Skepta as an inspiring example of a British born Nigerian who defied all odds, having recently been awarded the acclaimed Mercury Prize.
Sustainability is quickly becoming a more pressing matter within design circles and Ilori is among the majority that are exhausted with the city’s throwaway culture. He says: ‘Old furniture always has a narrative, if something is still in decent shape after 50 years, surely that speaks to its great craftsmanship.’
Old furniture always has a narrative, if something is still in decent shape after 50 years, surely that speaks to its great craftsmanship
Having grown up in what is now one of the world’s richest design hubs, the Islington born designer is extremely pleased about the area’s regeneration throughout the years and tells me of a time when the area was overrun with gangs, which is hard to imagine walking down Upper Street today. Just like those he admires, he has defied all odds to become a 21st century innovator and influencer. And like the parables he’s so fond of, he’s teaching the next generation a lesson in modern artistic expression.
Find out more about Ilori’s vividly coloured designs and his up cycling workshops at yinkailori.com