Interior Escapism: Yinka Ilori on Transforming Life Through Color

The multidisciplinary artist and designer speaks on creating for communities, storytelling through objects and why music is his inspiration.

Writer: Holly Connolly Stylist: Kusi Kubi
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Yinka Ilori is a master of many mediums. Since he graduated from London Metropolitan University over a decade ago with a degree in furniture and product design, Ilori’s output has spanned everything from objects, wallpaper and clothing to huge, site-specific installations, pavilions and playgrounds. His work seems to cheerfully evade labels like fashion, architecture or design. Instead, it feels better to think more in terms of a Yinka Ilori world. 

Instantly recognizable, Ilori’s pieces and installations are distinctive for their riotous use of color and bold, sculptural shapes. Scratch the surface and there’s a unifying ethos to everything he does. Ilori, who grew up in Islington, north London to Nigerian parents, wants to tell stories. He’s passionate about the way that objects can create a narrative with a deep love of community and a belief that good, inclusive design can make people feel empowered in their own environments:

“There is that saying, ‘A picture paints a thousand words.’ That is what I’m doing with design,” he tells me over the phone. “I’m painting my picture through words, through color, through pattern and with wisdom—combining those things, that is always the way I start. The birth of any project is those components.” 

As Ilori gears up to unveil a new technicolor pavilion in Berlin this summer, titled Filtered Rays, the multihyphenate speaks to GOAT about growing up in London, storytelling through color and making people feel something—good or bad—with his work.

I’m interested in the relationship between clothing and objects in your work. Your 2015 show, “If Chairs Could Talk,” was inspired by the clothing of people in your parents’ Pentecostal church. In some ways clothing is wearable public art, just like a sculpture. What do you make of this idea?

Clothing was always a huge part of my upbringing and my environment. I was always obsessed with how my parents used fabrics and cloth to celebrate their culture and their identity, and the richness of their heritage. With my parents and other Nigerian people who are immigrants in [the UK], clothing allowed them to feel like they belonged to a community; it allowed them to deal with that yearning of missing home and leaving their loved ones behind. I learned to adopt that within my work by using Swiss voile and Dutch wax prints. Weaving those [techniques] into my art was how I started telling stories in my work.

Was childhood a creative space for you?

It was creative in a different way. My parents were super religious and every Sunday I was made to go to church. I remember playing percussion; I was self-taught and accompanied the percussionist in church. Learning to play an instrument and to play with the choir with a passion and hunger of wanting to learn and celebrate music—I was very creative in that sense.

Then I became obsessed with objects and toys. If my parents bought me a racing car or an object that had a motor, within 24 hours I would have dismantled it, trying to understand what was the mechanism that allowed this car to move back and forth. I was always an inquisitive young kid and I always enjoyed sketching and drawing. I was probably in my 20s when I became obsessed with art, photography and music.

How do you know when a piece is finished?

I never really feel a piece is finished. When I do finish a piece, I always look at it and think, “Oh, I can add to this.” Stories never end. Maybe that's part of the nature of stories—they grow and they stretch so they can be passed on. In that sense there isn’t a real “finished” piece; I leave it for a bit and then I let the people, the audience, put their own stories onto it. That’s why I enjoy it. I love the layers of stories that are passed on and then change.

To help mark the centenary of Becontree Estate, you designed a playground in collaboration with local residents. Why do you think this way of designing is important?

It’s important because sometimes we’re faced with architects who have never even lived in a community space before. They’ve never lived in a block of flats or lived in a space where people come from different backgrounds. It’s the people who live in those communities who weave stories in that space. They’re the ones who make that community and that space energetic, vibrant and rich with culture.

Working with local people to design playgrounds or public sculptures is the way forward, because it gives them a sense of belonging; it gives them a sense of ownership. Also, it gives them a sense of pride in their community and, in turn, makes art and design accessible. We’re not saying to you that you have to go to a gallery to experience art, we're bringing it to your doorstep. That, to me, opens the conversation and the door for the next generation to feel like they have a say, that they can be architects or designers or artists.

I think that’s really powerful. It’s something I've always been passionate about. “How do we make people who live in these spaces feel included?” Inclusion is so key, and also visibility and representation. These are the things that I look at when I take on a public commission. I’ll make sure there's always a statement in any commission that highlights or includes an element of community and people.

Do you think of your work as radical?

I’m not sure. My work is very unapologetic. I’m not trying to please you or make you feel comfortable; I’m just telling you how I think this should be or what my opinion is within my work. There are always elements of joy but there’s also elements that make you feel uneasy. The core basis for what I do is always around joy and love and togetherness, so if that’s radical, then, yes. 

We’re not saying to you that you have to go to a gallery to experience art, we're bringing it to your doorstep.

Yinka Ilori

You talk a lot about storytelling and narrative in relation to your work. Do you look to other fields like film or literature for inspiration when you design?

Music has always been my inspiration. Afrobeat in particular and by that I mean the original Afro-pop artists like Fela Kuti or King Sunny Adé. I’m also inspired by this musician who does Fuji music, K1 Wasiu. Music has always been something that I’ve been obsessed with in terms of how beautifully it can tell stories that really capture your imagination and allow you to dream.

I feel like you must always get asked about color in your work, so it’s hard to cover new ground, but what role do you feel color has in design? 

Color is a gateway to conversation. It allows people to feel safe, comfortable. Color makes people feel entitled in a weird way, but it can also make people feel like they’re losing control. We did a project a couple of years ago where we designed a pavilion and put it in this gallery space in south London. One resident said he thought that it should be installed in its “native Nigeria.” He felt uncomfortable that this pavilion didn’t belong to his environment; he thought it was below him. 

It's interesting that in architecture the use of color is viewed by some people as tacky or distasteful, whereas for me and other people it’s about joy, celebration, community, togetherness, conversation-building, storytelling, acknowledging, being seen and bridging a gap.

Color is a gateway to conversation. It allows people to feel safe, comfortable.

Yinka Ilori

How has your work evolved since you began?

Over the years I’ve become a lot bolder, a lot more confident within my work and confident with the stories that I'm telling. I’m not holding back, I’m not trying to make anyone feel excluded. The scale has gotten bigger too and I’ve become more obsessed with creating community projects within the public realm that celebrate people and celebrate culture. 

What do you still want to achieve?

So much. I want to do a hotel one day. That would be a dream project. Maybe a church or a cinema too. How incredible would it be to design a church? Churches are sometimes very muted but to me church is a place where you rejoice, where you're meant to feel uplifted. I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a church that is full of color and patterns. That would be amazing.