Yinka Ilori
Yinka Ilori
Image: Andrew Meredith

Nigerian-British artist and designer Yinka Ilori is among a new generation of influential creatives and designers who are conscious of the profound messages they embed in their designs through using ancient stories, materials, and processes. Ilori repurposes vintage furniture into statement pieces, proving that one person’s waste is another’s coveted luxury. The resulting interiors fluidly join ancient narratives, with contemporary edges, bold colours, and humour elevating their appeal.

Ilori draws on his Nigerian cultural heritage and his British upbringing as he playfully explores and celebrates the cultures, unfolding a deeply personal story. His design tales take us into a world of imagination inspired by ancient Nigerian proverbs. Ilori’s design process starts with choosing a proverb that speaks to him, with the aim of breaking down inhibiting cultural barriers.

African proverbs offer wisdom and narratives about life, love, and death integrated into everyday communications. They are designed to teach morals, tell stories, illustrate life lessons, pass on enlightenment and inspirational messages, and their meaningful essence is handed down from generation to generation.

Ilori was surrounded by such deep wisdom in his childhood home, and the narratives of Nigerian proverbs resonated with him, giving him a unique perspective on life. Today they serve as one of the fundamental pillars of his work. “No matter how long the neck of the giraffe is, it still can’t see the future” is his favourite proverb.

“It’s saying we can’t predict what’s in store for anyone, so don’t judge them,” he says.

Ilori’s first Parable Chair collection, 2013, brought the oral Nigerian tradition into the realm of contemporary design; it was an ode to Yoruba parables that bear deep personal meaning for him. The ancient wisdoms underlining the collection are reinterpreted and embedded into the deconstructed vintage chairs.

The works playfully remind us that: “A lamp is not valued in the afternoon.” // meaning: {there is always a right time} “If the eyes are not blind, the legs won’t miss the way.” // meaning: {vision is critical. you can’t get what you can’t see}

Ilori touches on further reminders of his Nigerian heritage by pairing the profound narratives with Dutch wax-print textiles. His mother wore the bold, patterned wax prints on special occasions, and they were a firm presence during his London upbringing. Ilori was aware that the textiles served as a bridge between his two cultures, and he adorned the seats of his chairs with them, underlining the wisdom he seeks to playfully pass on to us.

“Vintage furnitures are powerful objects that hold personal stories, secrets, emotions, and sentiments,” Ilori says. Preloved chairs especially hold a deep meaning for Ilori. In his culture, it is a gesture of respect and invitation to offer one’s personal chair to another. The idea that while sitting in our chairs we share our feelings and thoughts, our love and our stories, inspired Ilori to explore his childhood friendships.

If Chairs Could Talk, his 2015 Solo Show at concept store Bluebird, London, told the stories of his different friendships, reflecting the characters of his boyhood friends in London. Ilori’s collections put stories and aesthetic over function, with humorous details embellishing his creations.

No matter how long the neck of the giraffe is, it still can’t see the future

Ilori holds the belief that chairs are part of our life story, and carefully selects each chair he works with from charity shops and pre-loved furniture stores. Ilori consolidates his fascination for nostalgia in every layer of his designs, due to his decision to embed new narratives onto chairs, which bring their own previous history.

Furthermore, his decision to transform discarded furniture and objects into luxuries is inspired by his passion for repurposing the unnecessary waste we generate in consumer cultures. Ilori’s considered application of materials and narrative elevate every pre-loved piece into desirable luxuries that convey new purpose and meaning.

As Ilori progresses to establish his practice, his projects are expanding in cultural symbolism, boldness, and colour. By bringing alive complex cultural narratives, Ilori is making new waves through designing spaces and installations that emphasise his love for colour.

Ilori’s recent works, driven by a deep need to create joy and inclusivity in our public spaces, appear to be underpinned by the ethos of placemaking — a form of urban planning that aims to transform public spaces with the intention of promoting inclusivity, people’s health, happiness, and well-being.

Ilori applies the bold colours surrounding him in his Nigerian communities, and, thus, unapologetically draws attention to the designs and environments he creates. His recent project, Estate Playground, is an indulgence of memories of his childhood playground in London. The colourful space, installed among brutalist London architecture, was designed to prompt dialogue, build human connection, and provoke joy among the locals.

Next on the horizon, Ilori will soon unveil his latest commission in Sweden. The design of the new dialogue and library space at the Ethnographic Museum of World Cultures in Stockholm, Sweden, is his most complex work to date, and brings together his passion for design, storytelling, colour, and cultural inclusivity.

Ilori’s designs effortlessly lead the way into a future, where luxury purposefully and consciously marries imagination, heritage, care for our environment, and the creation of communities — a covetable kind of beauty.

yinkailori.com; Insta: @yinka_ilori

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