Train up a child in the way he should go…This age long saying has been proven right by Yinka Ilori, a London-based furniture and product designer. Ilori specializes in upcycling furniture, inspired by Nigerian parables. While he was growing up, his Nigerian parents surrounded Ilori and his siblings with these parables as disciplinary lectures whenever they misbehaved. Now, he uses them as meditation. Each piece of furniture he creates has its own personality, character and story. Yinka Ilori says he is widely accepted in London because, in his words, “I have kept true to who I am and that will never change.”
Your designs are inspired by Nigerian parables and folklore, just out of interest, can you mention a few and describe how they influenced your work?
Yes, that’s correct. All my work is inspired by Nigerian parables and folklore, as this is something my parents inculcated in my siblings and I from an early age. One parable in particular is “One should not throw stones at a bird that wants to fly away”. A friend of mine was going through a tough time finding out who he was, which was not only difficult for him but also difficult for me as a friend, to see him go through so much pain. Inspired by this parable, my friend and I created a thought provoking installation that depicted some of his issues, as well as the parable about learning not to judge people for wanting to be who they are. I created an installation with a chair hanging from the ceiling that represented the bird. Beneath the chair was an old picture with a frame, which I painted green to represent the grass. The whole installation was about portraying the bird flying off the grass and away- not being judged by anyone for wanting to be free.
How did you come to learn about these tales, considering the fact that you have lived and worked mostly in the UK?
Yes, that’s a question that I get asked a lot to be honest, but it’s all down to my parents who made sure that they taught us the Yoruba culture. While growing up, when my siblings and I were in trouble or did something silly, instead of shouting at us, they would give us a long lecture. I mean LONG, which would then end with a parable òwe and we were left in deep thought. It was later on in life that these parables came to pass. My parents always said that one day I will be a man and I will remember. And they were right! It is interesting that I now use these parables as mediation. They are key life teachers that enable me to understand the meaning of life. I also listen to Nigerian musicians like Ebenezer Obey, Orlando Owoh and Fela Kuti because they have always incorporated parables in their music. I call them the legendary masters of word play!
Is your work a way of resolving the varied cultural influences in your life?
Yes, for sure. It allows me to celebrate my culture because that’s something I didn’t know how to do while growing up.
Do you also engage other more global issues in your furniture design?
Yes, that’s the beauty of using Nigerian parables as a source of inspiration because they allow me to touch on powerful and deep issues that I am very sensitive about. One in particular is social class, which is a common theme in my work. I hate inequality on any level and that’s something my parents always stood up against because they always treat everyone the same. Seeing my mum especially, treat everyone like her brother or sister was amazing. She always told me we should never think we are better than anyone else because “no one knows tomorrow”.
Have you always lived in the UK, and did you always know that you were going to be a designer?
Yes, I have always lived in the UK. Growing up initially, I wanted to be a civil engineer but during my GCSE, I took a huge interest in fine art, which led me to doing a degree in product and furniture design. Since then, I have never looked back and it’s the best thing that can ever happen to me.
How did you convince your parents to let you get into this field as in Nigeria the preferred options are medicine, engineering and law, and have they always been supportive? My parents wanted me to be a civil engineer but when they saw the quality of work I was producing early on, they were very proud and gave me their full support with love, prayers and affection.
If you were not a designer, what do you think you would have become?
I probably would have been an interior designer, which is not too far from a furniture designer. It would have always been something creative for sure.
Growing up in London as a Black boy with more than a passing interest in design and furniture isn’t exactly the typical stereotype. What challenges did you face?
I didn’t face any challenges to be honest, although it would be good to see a lot more young Black men in the industry. However, I live by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s philosophy, “I am not a Bzlack artist, I am an artist.” One thing that is great, is that I am different; my style, look and work is different. That’s what gives me my story. Everyone in London has been accepting of my work, because I have kept true to who I am and that will never change.
How has the reception been for your African-inspired designs here in the Europe?
The response has been phenomenal all around the world; I mean, I am taking on amazing projects that I never thought I would have been given the opportunity to do. Everyday for me is like a surprise because I never know what opportunity will pop into my email. That’s the beauty of my job.
Do you keep tabs on the interior design scene in Nigeria, and has your work received the same response?
Yes, for sure I do. It’s a scene I believe is growing and I would love to be involved in it when the right opportunity or project comes my way. Yes, I had an exhibition in Nigeria at the Whitespace Gallery supported by the British Council. The support and response was magical and I can’t wait to do it all again.
What is the underlying philosophy of your design?
Every piece of furniture has a story, it is just how it’s been told.
Please take us through your design process, from conception to production?
My design process is to select a parable, design the chair, then spray finishing and upholster. I never sketch when I am working on furniture, I sketch in my head and that way I am never restricted. I tend to sketch towards the end but that rarely ever happens. My friends call me the Jay Z of furniture!
Does your practice also include commissioned pieces and who are your major clients?
Yes, it includes private commissions. I also have some work on loan with the Vitra Design Museum, which are now travelling to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. I was recently commissioned to create seating for a restaurant in Nigeria that will open shortly this year. So, please look out for the announcement. My major clients are restaurant owners, bankers, lawyers, libraries, galleries, private art collectors and museums.
You are quite the friend of the earth, you don’t believe in waste and even accept throwaway furniture. Please tell us about that.
No, because I believe every piece of furniture deserves a second chance. I see furniture as people. If we as people can give someone a second chance, why can’t we give an old piece of furniture the same!
Just out of curiosity, do you think artists are born, or can anyone be taught to become one? That’s a tough question. I think artists are born but I could change my mind tomorrow and say the opposite.
Please tell us about your forthcoming shows in London and Nigeria and what you hope to achieve with both?
I have a solo exhibition in September during the London Design Week. It will be held at The Shop At Bluebird in Chelsea and is titled If Chairs Could Talk. In this body of work, I will present a series of five chairs, using each of them as a narrator to create a captivating collective of modern art that mimics characters from my childhood. More specifically, the exhibition focuses on the well-known African parable, “Despite how long the neck of a giraffe is, it can’t see the future,” creating a thought provoking installation that gives the audience an insight into my journey to adulthood.
My next exhibition will be in Nigeria and it will take place at the Omenka Gallery. It is in collaboration with designer Jade Folawiyo, a good friend of mine. The exhibition titled Status and Time will take place in December. We are both excited about working on it, as we believe it is overdue. What we hope to achieve is the opportunity to work with interior designers, architects, galleries and retailers to create outstanding work that will change the design industry because we are both brimming with interesting ideas, not only for Nigeria but for the African continent.
What advice would you give aspiring designers out there?
Believe in yourself, that’s the first thing you need to do.