Bold, provocative and playful are a few words to best describe the work of multidiscipline artist and designer Yinka Ilori; his practice focuses on telling new stories through contemporary design influenced by his British-Nigerian heritage. Ilori is passionate about making art and design accessible to all, and his work is an aesthetic declaration of this as it’s all about community and positive impact, from his buoyant laundrette to the multicoloured basketball court. Ilori stays true to his principle of making art and design accessible.
Through colour and texture, I try and create an emotional response to transport audiences somewhere else
Nigerian tradition is at the heart of Ilori’s work, from the colours he uses to the shapes and words. Ilori unifies every element to conceive a fluid visual language that speaks to the senses, allowing you to see the world in new ways. Often using the city as a canvas, Ilori exemplifies his language across diverse objects, from bespoke utensils and furniture to architecture and public art and more.
The magnetism of his visual dialect caught the attention of The Queen, who then awarded him with the esteemed accolade of an MBE for those with outstanding achievements that have made a lasting impact. An impressive feat for an artist who critiqued the same Monarchy that had crowned him a member of the empire.
Ilori’s work has led him to collaborate with numerous international brands and institutions, from Bulgari, Meta and Nike to the V&A, Design London and more. In his latest project, Ilori will employ the medium of light for his first-ever light installation titled “Dancing Ribbons“, a rhythmic light installation that will illuminate Liverpool for the city’s River of Light 2022.
We caught up with Ilori to learn more about his practice, inspiration and new installation at Liverpool’s River of Light.
Q: Hi Yinka! How are you doing? Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you please introduce yourself for those who do not know you?
A: My name is Yinka Ilori, and I’m a British-Nigerian designer and artist based in London. I started my career as a furniture designer. Since then, I’ve moved into large-scale commissions and projects, including public installations, brand collaborations as well as my own homeware and lifestyle products.
My work is humorous, provocative and playful, and I use art and design to tell stories, bring communities together and evoke a sense of joy and optimism. Through my work, I fuse culture and concepts. I often reference my Nigerian roots but also reflect on my upbringing in London and the ideas of identity and place are embedded in my work.
Q: Can you tell us how you started in design and arts, how they have played a role in your life, and why you decided to become an artist and designer?
A: I always wanted to become a designer. I studied furniture and product design at London Metropolitan University. During my first year, we had to complete a project called ‘Our Chair’. It was inspired by Martino Gamper’s chair series, ‘100 chairs in 100 days. The brief was to source old chairs, dismantle them into pieces and use all the original components to create a new chair. This project opened my eyes to new ways of working and understanding the importance of storytelling. It is something that influenced my early work.
After graduating, I interned for designer Lee Broom. Shortly after, with a loan from the Price’s Trust, I was able to set up my own studio and produce new work that could be exhibited during London Design Festival 2011.
I believe art and design are powerful tools to help us communicate and connect with each other. I think it can create a sense of belonging and that people’s voices are being heard. It plays and incredibly significant role in my life. I’m a private person, and I express my personal thoughts and ideas mainly through my work.
Q: You have a multidiscipline practice encompassing Architecture, Art, design, Sculpture and furniture, Interior design, public art and installations, in which you explore multiple themes in a vibrant visual language influenced by your British-Nigerian heritage and culture. Can you tell us more about your practice, creative process and inspiration?
A: Art, music, fashion, and stories were a big part of my childhood and how I connected with my heritage. These are things that continue to inspire me and which have become a part of my work.
Growing up, I was introduced to colour and pattern at a young age. Seeing my parents and their friends dressed in bright colours and rich textiles left a strong impression on me and has since become an important part of my work. Through colour and texture, I try and create an emotional response to transport audiences somewhere else. My parents also loved to tell stories. Parables or African’ words of wisdom’ which I’ve held onto and which always remind me of the power of stories. I often interpret these lessons and have brought them into my work and the objects I’ve created.
I’m also incredibly inspired by music, which I’ve always been surrounded by. My parents would always play African music in the house. We’d listen to Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé, artists who were pioneers in the 1960s and 70s. I would like to listen to what they were saying in Yoruba or Nigerian.
It reminded me of home – I was born and raised in the UK, but I feel I have a connection with Nigeria through the music. I’m also heavily influenced by grime too. I remember in school, there would be always be a group of boys MCing and beatboxing. We’d listen to Rinse FM and pirate radio. I surround myself with a mix of sounds – grime, African music, some hip hop and rap. There are so many different messages in music and it’s about taking the bits out that you want to use in your work or feel you can connect with.
My creative process usually starts with a sketch. I tend to draw fluidly, trying new ideas and making mistakes along the way. I like to develop my ideas before applying colour to the work. As the design progresses, the form and colour become more linked, and the project evolves from there. I like my team to feel inspired and involved in every stage of a project, so the studio has been built with the idea of exchange and collaboration at its heart. There’s always dialogue – we brainstorm ideas together and come up with solutions to challenges together.
Q: You have just been commissioned to create a piece for Liverpool’s River of Light 2022; titled ‘Dancing Ribbons’. An installation that responds to the theme, ‘Unexpected Twist’, draws inspiration from rhythmic gymnastics. The installation aims to capture the energy and poetic relationship between the gymnast and the prop ribbons represented in LED ribbons within a large-scale mesh box suspended from the ceiling. In addition, you also collaborated with conceptual sound artist, Peter Adjaye, to add another dimension to this piece. Can you tell us more about this piece, its significance and the development process and what visitors can expect to experience?
A: Let me start by saying that I’m really excited to be part of River of Light. It’s a great initiative that makes art and design accessible, which I think is really important. Bringing art outside a museum and onto the streets allows people who would have never encountered it to experience something bold and different.
Dancing Ribbons is my first artwork made using light as a medium. It’s also the first installation of mine, which incorporates a soundscape. So it’s hugely significant for me as it’s allowed me to experiment with ideas.
I’ve captured the energy and theatricality of a rhythmic gymnastics performance and the joy the performer feels by bringing movement to the piece. Collaborating with technicians and engineers on saturation and how to manipulate the medium using switches and dimmers, I’ve been able to control the way the light filters through the piece so that we could recreate the gymnast’s fluid motions and the organic shapes of the ribbons. The soundscape adds an incredible new dimension to the piece. Peter has brought together natural sounds, such as water droplets, along with percussions. When visitors first see the piece, the rhythm and motion is quite slow and soothing, but it slowly picks up pace. The sound really helps accentuate this experience and creates a sense of performance within the space.
I wanted to create an evocative experience for audiences, and I’m curious to see how they respond to the piece. For the first time, visitors will be able to experience my work in the night and in darkness which is also incredibly exciting.
Q: Out of all the incredible brands you’ve collaborated with and the public art spaces you’ve created, which one is your most memorable and why?
A: They have all been incredibly special because they have all changed people’s lives. To have been trusted by the community to create magic in their lives is truly special, and so they have all been memorable. They have brought me joy, and whenever I think about them, I’m able to relive them in my head.
Q: The studio is the sacred temple of creativity. What are three things you can’t live without in your studio?
A: The portrait of my grandmother, music and plants.
Q: What’s next for you as an artist and designer?
A: In the more immediate, I’m working on my very first pop-up store in London ahead of Christmas, which will create a fun and immersive shopping experience. I’m also working on a new sculpture for the park in Kings Hill titled ‘Slices of Peace’, inspired by the culture and heritage of Kent, particularly the local history of apple growing.
As an artist and designer, I’m always trying to bring new ideas to life. I hope to keep exploring new mediums, scales and creative collaborations, which allow me to push the boundaries a little further. I’m excited to see where things go next.
Q: What does art mean to you?
A: Art, to me, means freedom and being able to create and make memories any way you want that feels true to you.