Inside the Harrow studio of artist and designer Yinka Ilori, paintings and furniture are daubed in bright pink, acid green, warm orange and sunny yellow. Colour bounces around the space with the playful, electric energy synonymous with his work.
Soon enough the conversation arrives at Ilori’s most prominent work to date, a collaboration with Pricegore architects to design the Dulwich Pavilion in south east London, as part of this year’s London Festival of Architecture.
The 10m high cube, ‘The Colour Palace’, fuses European and West African influences; the geometric patterns that cloak the structure a homage to a Lagos textile market, as well as the shapes and symmetry found in the architecture of the John Soane designed Dulwich Picture Gallery. Ecstatic reviews have come in from here, there and everywhere.
Such a high-profile commission is an impressive achievement for a designer who is just 32-years-old and who was, just a few years ago, still best known for breathing new life into chairs he’d find on the street with his technicolour palettes and Dutch wax fabrics. But it’s here that Ilori stops the flow of the conversation, his tone becoming sincere. ‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ he says. ‘I haven’t told anyone, but I want to put it out there because I think it’s important.’
Ilori reaches for his phone. ‘When our design for the Dulwich Pavilion was announced as a winner, someone sent an email to the architects. It was from a politician – who I won’t name – and I’ve been sitting on this email for a year.’
He begins to read: ‘As Dulwich residents my family derives enormous pleasure from the Picture Gallery and from Sir John Soane’s museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields which we have visited on several occasions. Soane was a man of genius and inspiration. Manifestly, your winning design for the garden of Dulwich Picture Gallery doesn’t share his attributes. Surely it would be better assembled in a Lagos shanty town, where it might provide some shelter for the starved millions who live there.’
Ilori looks back up again, visibly affected at having to recite the words: ‘He sent a link as well, showing people starving and stuff. This is a temporary structure. And it makes someone feel so uncomfortable they have to sit down and send an email like that. I can count on my fingers the designers we have from ethnic backgrounds. And this is the kind of stuff we have to deal with…’
Being an emerging black designer in a white dominated industry is still only one of the obstacles Ilori has had to overcome in his career. Like many young people in the creative industries, he’s had to gure out how to simply make a living, before even beginning to take on the challenge of scaling a successful practice.
But he gave up almost before he had even started. His first collection, a set of three old chairs he upcycled before photographing them on a borrowed camera on the streets of Archway, was created while struggling to find work after completing a degree in Furniture and Product Design at London Metropolitan University in 2009. There, Ilori found little to relate to from the curriculum, which focused on Western and European design. He felt pressure to conform and admits that at that age he lacked the confidence to push his assignments beyond what was expected by his tutors.
After graduating, and after a stint as an intern at Lee Broom’s studio, he received a £3,000 loan from the Prince’s Trust. But he was still working at Marks and Spencer in Moorgate, steadily losing money on renting a studio. ‘It was tough,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t see anyone who was young, black and a designer – the only guy I looked up to was David Adjaye. And there was no one up and coming. But I just thought I’d give it one more try. I thought fuck everyone, fuck everything. I’m gonna make my first collection. I’m gonna do me. I’m gonna educate you about my culture, because there’s no one else doing that through design.’
It was a jolt of pride and ambition that ultimately set Ilori on the path to where he is today. His upcycled chairs, infused with the Nigerian folklore and parables he grew up hearing as a child caught the imagination of the art world. One chair from his first collection, named ‘Let there be light’, is now part of the collection of the Vitra Design Museum and has been shown in the Guggenheim and Bilbao. Another from the set hangs on the wall of his studio, along with other creations, each ingrained with a story of its own.
For Ilori, his biggest struggle as a young designer was how to afford a studio, make work and pay rent while working part time in retail. ‘If a small space costs £1,000 a month how are you supposed to get the money back?’ he says. Finding funding was crucial. He says the loan he received from the Prince’s Trust, which also provided him with ‘the kindest, most supportive’ mentorship, was ‘when my career started’. And (after his fair share of failed proposals) it was another funding application made in 2014 that led him to produce his first international show, when the Arts Council – through its Artist’s International Development Fund – provided another £3,000 grant to produce work for the Lagos contemporary art gallery A White Space.
‘I wrote a really in-depth proposal,’ he says, adding that besides a four day course with the Prince’s Trust he had to ‘do a lot of reading’ to teach himself how to run a creative business successfully – another element he feels should be amplified in art education, where he was just taught about basic marketing. ‘It was the first time I dealt with budgets, audience, evaluation – those core elements that are now instinctive to me.’
Having effectively taught himself how to run a business, Ilori still runs his studio on his own. ‘I didn’t partner with anyone,’ he says. ‘I thought about getting investment but I’ve done it on my own for nearly 10 years now, it’s just been me.’
‘At university they did encourage us to collaborate but there was no discussion of how to start a studio or practice – you did your three or four years, then you were in the big wide world. When I finished, I did have plans to set up a studio with a friend, but it didn’t work out because we had different ideas. He was more of a maker. While I enjoy making, I also enjoy the process of designing, from the brief stage to exploring different materials to model-making.’
Would he ever think about partnering with someone now? ’If you have the same interests, design ideas and approach then it’s easy. But you still have to compromise. I love collaborating and working with other designers, but now I’ve been going it alone I plan to keep it that way. I’d say to students now – don’t feel like you have to work for someone else’s practice. If you work for a studio you can pick up their habits and their way of thinking. If you adopt your own style and work in a way you feel comfortable, you learn to make mistakes on your own and learn from them.’
Going it alone has its unique set of challenges – requiring having to learn more about how to run your business, for example – but it’s getting easier. ‘It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s so rewarding to put in that hard work and see people appreciate your work, sharing it around the world. And I feel that anyone graduating now is in a good position – you’re literally marketing yourself for free on social media. Someone could send you a DM saying, “I’m working on a commission. Want to meet?” Before, people weren’t so accessible. Even the big designers – Tom Dixon, Ron Arad and so on – are on social media now. You can send them, or someone on their team, a message and the chances of a response are high.’
Ilori has a strong vision of how he wants his business to grow over the next five years, developing his studio as a brand, setting up a shop and showroom and producing lines of furniture and homeware that are more affordable – from chairs to tea towels. ‘I want to extend the brand so more people can have something by Yinka Ilori in their house,’ he says.
As with many designers, Ilori’s practice is a balance between creative commissions and branded ones. The majority of his income comes from big public projects, but branded commissions make up about 20% of Ilori’s workload. In addition to his work for hotel brand CitizenM, he has since produced another playground, commissioned by Pinterest for this year’s Cannes Lions Festival and he has also collaborated with Adidas. ‘I’m quite selective about the work I do,’ he says. ‘I love working with brands, but only if they allow me to be creative and true to who I am. And as long as the brand isn’t trying to overpower my story.’
It’s this attitude that informs his advice for other young designers out there: ‘Brands are really tapping into designers, but you’ve got to keep your integrity,’ he says. ‘It’s risky and it can damage your career – people may not want to work with you if you get too commercial.’
But it’s public work that captures Ilori’s imagination the most, and after almost a decade in the business, his determination to make a permanent mark on the city he grew up in is leading to fruition. It’s fitting that on the same day the Colour Palace opened to the public, Somerset House launched a major exhibition celebrating 50 years of black art in Britain called ‘Get Up Stand Up Now’. And it was Ilori who was invited to design the gallery space itself, with free reign to reignite the austere rooms and corridors of the neoclassical institution with his signature technicolour touch, as well as create a grand, regal entrance to the exhibition, which pops out of the side of the courtyard like a psychedelic portal.
Since the Colour Palace was launched he’s been approached by other architects about public spaces and this year saw the unveiling of Ilori’s first public realm project, an installation that transforms the ‘forbidding environment’ beneath a south London railway bridge into a kaleidoscope of colours designed to echo the Thames sunset.
Named ‘Happy Street’, the work is another symbol of Ilori’s desire not only to inspire younger generations but to encourage inclusivity and playfulness in his designs through the medium of colour. It’s an approach channelled through another work of his, when Ilori created his ‘Estate Playground’ installation for the CitizenM hotel in Shoreditch as part of the London Design Festival 2017.
The playground created for CitizenM is an example of how, despite it being a branded commission, his story still shines through. Ilori drew on his memories growing up on the Marquess Estate in Islington to create a slide, swings and see-saw daubed in his trademark colours.
‘I wanted to bring back the idea of play in adults,’ he says. ‘And community, love, unity. As a kid growing up in Islington no one cared what race or religion you were. You just played. I had people from every country living in my estate and it had this playground that was very brutalist, unloved, but we made it work. It was our playground. We loved it.’
As well as instilling in him a drive to succeed, Ilori owes his eye for colour to his Nigerian upbringing. From a young age he was inspired by his parents, who ‘just wore colour so naturally’, and his deep felt connection to Yoruba culture was cemented when he first visited Lagos aged 10, then for a second time a er university.
‘The work I create is very loud,’ he says. ‘It’s saying look at me, I’m colourful, and I don’t look like you, I look different. That’s what Nigerian culture is about. It’s saying: it’s Sunday, I’m gonna wear the brightest colour clothes, my 24-carat gold necklace from Dubai, and rock it in the middle of Dalston.’
Yet while Ilori’s work is fun, it is layered with heritage and meaning that stands out prominently in a sphere in which the work of black artists is only recently being offered a platform by design institutions.
His practice also comes with a social responsibility he feels should be fundamental to any designer. Just as his chairs show a passion for bringing new life to unloved objects, they symbolise his firm belief in reducing waste. When he works with brands he stipulates that once they no longer have a use for the work, it must be recycled or donated to a school or public space. This was the case with the Estate Playground, ‘though I kept the slide’, he says, flicking his head behind him where a purple and orange plank leans against the rear wall of the studio. ‘You know, for when I have kids one day…’
‘Design can sometimes be quite elitist and it doesn’t need to be,’ he says. ‘All the people who write about me now… years ago they didn’t understand what I was on about. What’s Dutch wax? Why are you so colourful? What’s parables? They didn’t understand it. My advice would be: don’t dilute your story. Make it as rich as possible. People won’t always understand what you’re trying to say. But people will get it later on. You might just be ahead of your time.’