Yinka Ilori in February 2021 in front of his Jack Arts billboard at the top of Broadway Market, Hackney.

Yinka Ilori

In Conversation

Yinka Ilori has taken the world of domestic design in his stride, with a confident new homeware collection. SCP's editor, Duncan Riches, talked to him about making ideas reality, the importance of connectivity and how positive role models have shaped his outlook on life. 

Beginnings

After a few false starts due to Yinka’s particularly crammed diary, we finally catch up in mid-April, at a time when both the sun and people are starting to come out more regularly. Yinka is in very good form, feeling grateful for the good health of his family and friends, and busy working on a number of projects for a bumper 2021. As an interviewee, he is thoughtful, quick to laugh and has many anecdotes up his sleeve.

We start by talking about the new homeware collection, which is a departure in scale to much of his work, which are often large scale public realm pieces, such as his iconic Colour Palace at the East Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2019, or last years Colorama Skatepark within the La Condition Publique cultural centre near Lille, France.

Yinka Ilori Homeware Collection, photographed by Andy Stagg.

Note: DR (Duncan Riches), YI (Yinka Ilori).

DR

When did you decide to create a homeware collection and how did it begin?

YI

Well, it started last year, like March April. There were just three of us in the studio last year, after I had to make one person redundant. We had quite a lot of work in the studio and then I just got this influx of emails, saying “projects cancelled”, or “we’ve gone into liquidation and can’t pay you for all your work”. I was like, bloody hell, what am I going to do. So, I sat at home for a week, trying to work out what to do. Then, I don’t know why, I decided to design some socks on this website that produces really basic stuff. It’s a bit like at Snappy Snaps, where you send them your photo and they put it on a mug or whatever, it was like that basically. So, I did a pair of socks and got them sent to my studio. I then posted an image of the socks on my Instagram and it went mad. I got like two and a half thousand likes, just for some shitty socks. It was bonkers. So I thought let’s go away and get them made properly, which I did, finding a UK producer and it just went on from that. So I did the socks, and then I thought I would do a collection. I did some stoneware, then some trays, and I just had to research all of this stuff online, while at home or in the studio.

Yinka quite literally socking it to them.
Detail of the new Homeware Collection, images Andy Stagg.

Product Development in Lockdown

DR

I know the pieces get produced in different places now, like the bowls in Portugal. Did you just piece it together bit by bit?

YI

After the socks, I wanted to do some stoneware. So I put out a call on my socials, asking if anyone knew any producers of stoneware in Europe or the UK, or even in London. I knew a bit about Stoke-on-Trent, but I didn’t want to do porcelain or bone-china just yet, I thought stoneware was the way to go. So, I started designing these products and I got a tip about some people in Portugal, who said straight away they could do it. Then I designed some trays, which are being produced in Belgium, then I did do some bone-china pieces, which are produced in Stoke-on-Trent, then some mugs which are produced in Poland. I then got a graphic designer in the studio, who has been a massive help. I don’t think I would have done it without him, laying stuff out, getting the right Pantones, all the stuff I didn’t have a clue about doing. All the technical bits, doing all the sketching on paper is one thing, but getting stuff right for production is another.

DR

I am interested in the colourways and the patterns, how did they all come about?

YI

I have got a huge archive or colourways, artworks and patterns, some that I just haven’t used and some that I have. I just love creating artworks. There was a project that I was doing a couple of years ago for London City Airport. It was for the exit Terminal, it was going to be for one of their facades. That was all inspired by the Thames and the cultural exchange of food, fruit, veg and animals that used to come into the Royal Docks, and the rum barrels from the Caribbean. The kind of wavy pattern is called Omi Omi, which was the one inspired by the Royal Docks. The other patterns were from a previous project that was based around play and traditional Nigerian folklore, so I wanted to bring these elements into homeware, making it quite playful and colourful. I wanted functional art pieces in the home.

Aami Aami cotton tablecloth. Image Andy Stagg.

Growing Up Vibrant

DR

It’s difficult to see your products and not see a kind of vibrancy and playfulness. There often seems to be this element of happiness that comes through in your work, I’m interested to know where this comes from.

YI

I think that comes from my upbringing. My parents have always instilled in us that even if you are having a tough time, or even if things don’t go your way, be grateful, try and be positive. I was thinking about this. When you live in a particular type of space that is working class, we lived in North London, you don’t know anything else apart from your environment. You don’t even know you are working class, because you are happy with where you are, you don’t care about Fulham or Chelsea, you’re having a great time. Learning to be happy about what you have and your environment is something I try to bring into my products. Trying to always be positive and optimistic I think is something that has been instilled in us. So with the products I have tried to approach it in the same way. Even the most simple forms and objects can provide you with happiness and joy.

"Trying to always be positive and optimistic I think is something that has been instilled in us. So with the products I have tried to approach it in the same way. Even the most simple forms and objects can provide you with happiness and joy."

Yinka Ilori

Validating Creativity

DR

I would like to explore your background a little bit. I am interested to know what your experience was of being creative as a young person, in the home and elsewhere.

YI

My parents wanted me to be an engineer and they wanted my brother to be a doctor or a pilot, but I didn’t go down that route. I studied Art and Design, and then studied Furniture Design at London Metropolitan. At home I was always sketching, I loved nature and birds, I was always drawing pigeons or parrots, or flowers and trees. My parents embraced that, they would buy us pencils and sketchbooks and that kind of thing. For them, they never saw it as a career, they just thought it was a bit of a hobby and that it’s not going to go anywhere. It was not until I went to study Art and Design at London Metropolitan for a year, when they thought maybe there is something here maybe. They came to my end of year show, where I won a runner up prize for design. I kept the award at home, just because it gave me validation, meaning maybe I could pursue this as a career and I did that. They never really said you can’t be an artist. It was more like, we would prefer you to be a civil engineer, but if you want to do art, that’s okay.

DR

It’s interesting how perceptions and indeed realities are changing. The idea that anyone from an ethnic minority background in Britain would tell their children to go into the creative arts as a career was a total no-no a generation ago. Now I think that is actually changing, creativity is now being seen as a way to make a career for people of all backgrounds.

YI

Totally. I still have relatives who say “how’s your little chair business doing?”, taking the piss a bit. You know it’s a bit hurtful because you’re totally passionate about what you are doing and someone is saying “are you still flogging your chairs?”. But now I think they see what I am up to now and are starting to take it more seriously, which is great. They are coming to shows and exhibitions. My parents came to the Colour Palace two years ago, and they were like “bloody hell, this is amazing”.

DR

They must have been so proud.

YI

That was the first time for them, being in a gallery. My brother as well, he studied plane aviation, and now he says he doesn’t want to pursue that but would like to do something creative. It’s mad. People’s ideas and thoughts on careers are changing.

 

Being a Role Model

DR

You realise that your part of that change for young people, because if you’re a young twelve year old Black boy or girl living in Hackney or North London now and you see your face up there doing that, they are like “wow, I could do that”. I’ve talked to other designers from minority backgrounds and they have said how important it was to see people who looked liked them doing a job they wanted to do. If there is no-one that looks like you, there is no way you’re going to do it.

YI

I appreciate you saying that. It’s very important to me to be a role model. The honest truth is that in design it could be more diverse. Where I grew up in North London there wasn’t really anyone talking about design, architecture, graphic design and fashion. We were talking about other things. So to be a role model for other young Black designers is important, whether they are on housing estates or studying, or whatever. I hope it can inspire them to feel like they can become a designer or an architect or whatever it is in design.

DR

It totally will. The design industry has been a very white and privileged industry, but I believe that it’s really changing and the last year has accelerated that change. With so many digital tools available for younger creative minds to create businesses, I think that is helping to break through the ceiling. It’s a bit like your socks, people can do things for themselves now, and not necessarily take the traditional route of studying and getting into an established industry.

YI

I agree. A friend of mine a couple of years ago said you need to get Instagram. I didn’t really feel like I needed any more social media at the time. However, I got it, and you know what, Instagram has been one of the biggest things that has really elevated my studio and my practice because it gave me world wide visibility. So even people in the smallest cities and towns use Instagram. Social media has been a bit of a game changer.

"To be a role model for other young Black designers is important, whether they are on housing estates or studying, or whatever. I hope it can inspire them to feel like they can become a designer or an architect or whatever it is in design."

Yinka Ilori
"If you can dream, then anything is possible" by Yinka Ilori for Jack Arts. 2021.

New Projects

DR

I wanted to delve a little bit into what the studio is up to at the moment and what projects you’ve got coming up.

YI

We are a small studio, there are six of us at the moment, three architects, a studio manager, a graphic designer working freelance and me. So we’re doing more public realm projects at the moment. We are doing a permanent playground in Parsloes Park in Becontree, as part of the Becontree Forever project, that marks 100 years of the Becontree Estate in Dagenham. There is also a project in Somerset House this summer called Dodgems and a pavilion in Berlin this year too. Life is getting back to normal in the studio, both my assistant and I have been coming in through most of the pandemic and it’s nice that things are relaxing now. We’ve kept busy and we are going to expand the homeware collection this year too.

DR

Are the furniture and lighting companies talking to you now?

YI

Yes, it’s a bit difficult to talk about them now though as I am not really allowed, but there are a number of things that are in the pipeline, which is exciting.

"Love Always Wins" by Yinka Ilori for Jack Arts. 2021.

Black Lives Matter

DR

It would be remiss of me not to ask about your views on Black Lives Matter. It’s been a little while since it all kicked off last year, and I would like to hear your feelings about it and what you think is next?

YI

I think I’ve always kept quite quiet about things I have experienced within design and about people saying stuff. I’ve always just tried to cut out the BS and just get my head down and work. But with what happened last year in the States and with so many people coming out and talking about their experiences, not only in the creative industries, but more generally in media and in television. To hear those stories was painful. So I felt I owed it to myself and to the next person coming behind me to use my voice. I have got a platform, I would be doing myself and other people wrong if I didn’t speak out about experiences. So when I put up my post about my experience with the Colour Palace, and what some of the locals had said to me about it. Which was super painful. I felt at the time the people around me could have reacted differently. What could they have done to ask if you are okay? There was none of that. I needed to talk about how I felt about that experience and also say enough is enough, because people are accountable. If you are at the top and have the opportunity to change things, then make a change. I am so glad that people are taking about discrimination now. There are designers now coming up, like Mac Collins, a young super talented black designer rightfully doing things with Benchmark. Other designers from ethnic minority backgrounds I am talking to are super busy, getting work, getting recognition. I think that things are changing, bit by bit, but it is important that people get work on merit too.

DR

It feels like the concentric circles that have come out of Black Lives Matter are helping to shine a light on broader inequalities in both our industry and elsewhere, which can only be a good thing.

YI

Within our industry there are some really incredible people who would like to see greater equality in design and we all need to work together to make that happen.

"Within our industry there are some really incredible people who would like to see greater equality in design and we all need to work together to make that happen."

Yinka Ilori

A big thank you to Yinka and his team for helping make this interview and post happen. Enjoy Yinka’s positivity infused designs at SCP.

Yinka Ilori Homeware Collection

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