A seat at the table: Yinka Ilori sees the joy in understated objects
Words by Angus Harrison and Anna TehabsimFilm & Photography by Bafic
Yinka Ilori remembers a chair. It belonged to his father, and sat in the living room of his old house. Along with his siblings he understood: if their dad came home from work and was anyone sat it in, they had to get up. “It’s funny,” he adds, “when someone loves something, you all want it as well.”
Yinka's love for chairs – his deep respect for the quiet role they play in our lives – still rings in his voice when we speak from his studio in Harrow, North West London. As one of the UK’s brightest young furniture designers, his rise has been celebrated thanks to his bold and playful technique for upcycling – or re-loving, as he prefers – old chairs. You know Yinka’s work as soon as you see it: coated in electric colours inspired by his parent’s native Nigeria, every piece he produces tells a story. Above all, they tell his.
Growing up on a council estate in Islington, Yinka experienced the power of cross-cultural relationships first hand. “Living there taught me a lot about empathy and identity,” he recalls. “London is such a beautiful place, and it’s really shaped me as an artist.” Despite his parents’ desire for him to become a doctor or a civil engineer, Yinka soon found himself at London Metropolitan University, studying for a degree in furniture and product design. Yet it was a while before he found his voice. “I don’t ever remember being encouraged to bring my culture into my designs,” he explains, honestly. This was mirrored in his designs which lacked the colour that makes his work so unmistakable now. “They looked good aesthetically but contained no reflection of who I was.”
The sea-change was a trip to Nigeria after his degree. Yinka had been making regular trips since he was 11, but it was seeing the country with the insight of his training that made the difference. “It all clicked,” he beams. “I saw how the fabrics made my parents happy. I wanted to encapsulate those special moments.”
Since then, Yinka’s work has been focused on building the parables his parents shared with him as a child into the grain of his furniture, infusing the objects with the verbal traditions of Nigeria. “They are about life, love, empathy, sharing and not being envious,” he says. “As I’ve grown up and gone into the world I’ve realised these parables were tools. I hope to educate people on things we maybe take for granted.”
His work has been exhibited all over the world, from London to Lagos, but for Yinka the real joy is the reactions it can provoke. “The first thing you do when you see the chairs I create is smile,” he claims proudly. “I want to express positive energy through fabrics and colours.” More than anything he sees his work as ongoing, and the chair as a narrator passed between families and generations. Whether the next person to sit down understands the meaning behind the chair or not, they have become a part of its story.
???? Curated by ????Yinka
The collection of mine that I'm most proud of
It would be my collection called “If chairs could talk”. As a designer it’s really hard to break into the industry. This collection was about five people from my secondary school. I wasn’t trying to please anyone with this collection, I just did me. And it ended up opening a lot of doors.
Brighton Museum, I have a chair that’s part of their collection now which is special for me. NOW Gallery, because they’ve always supported me. And probably the Serpentine Gallery. I always look forward to what they’re going to do next
Three Architectural landmarks in London that have a personal significance to me
Three design books that have inspired me
Africa Remix, The Bauhaus, Sou Fujimoto
Lizzie Kingdom, Lucy Ruth, and a guy called Nifemi Marcus.
Three upcoming designers who are reimagining our future
Four go-to colours in my work
Pink, yellow, orange, turquoise and yellow.
It would be spinach with pounded yam. It’s called efo.
One recipe that reminds me of my childhood
???? 20 Q’s with ????Yinka
1: What do you eat for breakfast?Alpro cash original milk with oats. Porridge!
2: When’s the last time you did something for the first time?Gosh I don’t know. I have no idea! I don’t know!
3: What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to you?You’ve got nice teeth.
4: What are you addicted to?Fruit Pastilles.
5: Who inspires you?My parents.
6: What does the future mean to you?Happiness.
7: What’s the best thing you can cook?Nigerian vegetable stew, with meats and white rice.
8: What was the last thing you wrote down?My mum’s bank account details.
9: What can you draw best?A chair.
10: What’s the last lesson you learnt?Sometimes keep your opinions to yourself.
11: Do you have a favourite word at the moment?Sadly…
12: When do you feel most alive?When I go for a run.
13: When was the last time you broke a promise?Not sure. I haven’t broken one for a little while you know.
14: What do you think about when you brush your teeth?Thinking about having a good day.
15: What’s your favourite smell?Tom Ford, Black Noir.
16: Who is the last person you made eye contact with?Some builders.
17: What is the worst compliment you received?None! Haven't had any bad ones!
18: When was the last time you were bored?I’m never bored!
19: What was the last piece of music you listened to?Lupe Fiasco, “Superstar” with Matthew Santos. Great song.
20 : When was the last time you cried?I haven’t cried for a long time.
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