Yinka Ilori’s world is wrapped in the most vibrant colors. And, while this British-Nigerian artist began his career in 2011 upcycling vintage furniture, inspired as he was by the traditional Nigerian parables and West African fabrics of his childhood, Ilori is now renowned globally for his colorful artistic installations, all of which tell a story. “My childhood was colorful, joyful, and rich and those joyful memories live with me forever,” he says.
These days, you’ll find him doing everything from busily designing vibrant tabletop goods in his London studio to planning his next large-scale art installation. We caught up with the 34-year-old designer while he was in Athens where he’s working on yet another exciting project. It was the first time he’d traveled in many months, something he’s lamented, since travel inspires much of his work.
His other inspiration is community, the importance of which he learned from a very early age growing up in London. “Community has always been a powerful tool that has influenced my work. I was born to Nigerian immigrants who moved to London and realized early on that communities are the fabric of the U.K. I try to tell good stories in my work and center it around identity. Communities have stories to tell.”
And much of his work, colorful as it is, just feels joyful—whether it’s a brightly colored basketball, or an actual basketball court, like the one he designed at London’s Canary Wharf. “It’s about creating joy in spaces where others may not see joy,” he says. “Canary Wharf to me is not an inviting place. It’s an area with big banks and men and women in suits. What’s powerful is that young people from all over are coming to the Canary Wharf and now they’re the fabric of that area. You can change that narrative. It’s about bringing people joy that has nothing to do with money or experience,” he says. We caught up with Ilori to hear more about his work and what’s to come.
What was the inspiration for your Project Earth campaign at Selfridges in which you designed three windows: Sunrise, Flowers, and Forest?
Yinka Ilori: They wanted me to create three windows centered around sustainability—something that would convince people to reuse and buy less. So I created three settings using everyday objects and tried to show people that if we can recycle things, and think about how we consume things, how beautiful our country can be. Everything in there will be reused somewhere else. That’s something I try to do with all of my projects.
It’s very exciting that you will be designing this year’s @design.London talks space.
That was supposed to launch last year, but it was postponed because of Covid. My design will have Perspex circular cylinders installed around the talks space. I’ve been quite obsessed with colored Perspex this year—the openness of the material is unapologetic. I wanted to expose the space and make it feel as inclusive as possible. You can go in there and listen to people—it’s a celebratory/inclusive space. It’s something we need after this year.
You’re also known for your large-scale public art installations such as the one on The Rowe Building in London. Can you give us a behind-the-scenes look at how you conceptualize such a project and bring it to life?
For this project, I was inspired by being immersed in the Balogun Market in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s literally like going to Portobello Market times 100. It’s very colorful and hot. I wanted to take that energy and put it into London, in this really upscale area that’s also close to Peckham (where “Little Lagos” is). I wanted to give Dulwich a taste of Nigeria.
Your home goods—woven cushions, stoneware bowls, and plates—are all infused with color. How did you come to this signature look?
This year especially, I felt as though I wanted to be surrounded by joy since I was home so much. You can be anywhere in the world and you can experience my work in your home. There were small things I don’t think we knew we needed before. Holding a mug that says “Love Always Wins” can spark joy. I redid my homes using color to create different experiences in the rooms. I wanted to feel positive among all this chaos.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a number of large-scale installations and some brand partnerships. We’re launching our second home goods collection and working with a museum in New York and some retailers in the States.
We’re really trying to branch out and are looking to do picnic blankets, table mats, and wallets. I try to encourage my customers to let me know what they want, too.