Colouring the city with Yinka Ilori / Art , Design
Colouring the city with Yinka Ilori

Creating joy is serious business for the designer who earned a MBE for his optimistic public work throughout the course of London’s lockdowns.

Creating joy is serious business for the designer who earned a MBE for his optimistic public work throughout the course of London’s lockdowns.

Inspired by his dual heritage and stories of family traditions, the designer strives to breathe new life into old objects and neglected spaces and to channel a joyful, positive note into all his creations.

London-based Yinka Ilori is a British-Nigerian multidisciplinary artist who works across graphic and interior design, sculpture and architecture – projects which are as broad ranging as upcycled furniture, large-scale urban installations and global exhibitions.

Based in a studio in Acton, the interiors of which he designed in collaboration with architect Sam Jacob, Yinka recently launched a collection of homeware pieces – think vibrant, colourful tableware and linens, cushions and trays, all influenced by traditional Nigerian dress and the parables told to him as a child by his parents – some of which are stocked in Selfridges, Matches Fashion and SCP, and turn everyday functional objects into artistic, statement pieces.


Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Yinka’s decision to turning everyday functional objects into artistic statements was inspired by circumstance.

When his studio closed during lockdown and Yinka found many of his commissions put on hold, he designed a pair of socks in his signature colourful style, just as a way of keeping himself busy. People asked him on Instagram where they could buy them – and socks soon turned into homeware – and public murals.

With restrictions forcing us to retreat to our homes, many of us sought refuge and escape in green and public spaces, which became a canvas for Yinka’s colourful, hopeful installations.

The intention, he explains was to lift morale. “The murals I made served as a point of hope, a reminder that we’ll get through this as a collective. I grew up in a council estate in north London. I've experienced first-hand what struggle and hardship and pain are like. But there’s also a lot of joy in those spaces. Everyone deserves joy. Lockdown was a tough time for everyone – suddenly we all had a common pain. But I want to show that – although you might not be able to erase the pain – you can kind of soothe it.”

'Let's Bring London Together', Tottenham Court Road
'Happy Street', Battersea

As well as being mood-enhancing, Yinka hopes his work will serve as the backdrop for memory making. “I love seeing how people interact with my work and how they create memories there,” he says. “I aim to take mundane spaces and make them into reimagined colourful dreamscapes – zones where memories can be created.”

Now decorated with an MBE, and with collaborators like Lego, Fitflop and the V&A in his portfolio, Yinka originally found his voice through the creation of that told stories of his Nigerian heritage and London upbringing. When he set up his own studio in 2011, he collected chairs he found discarded on the streets and revamped them with brightly coloured fabric and paint and gave them subtle but humorous stories, based on parables. The collection was presented at The Shop At Bluebird, entitled If Chairs Could Talk. From Chelsea, the chairs went to Milan, the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, London Design Festival, Cape Town, and Korea.

'If Chairs Could Talk'
'If Chairs Could Talk'

From everyday thrones to public murals, there’s a fearlessness to Yinka’s work. His style is loud; clashing colours sit side-by-side and bold geometric shapes melt together. It takes a certain amount of creative courage to put together.

“The Nigerian in me is unapologetic. There’s no sorry. I think I got that from my mum. She dressed the way she wanted to let the world know that’s who she is. So now I’m the same, I wear pink and yellow and violet together if I want to. People want stories, not just aesthetics, they want to connect to your work. People want meaning in their homes.”

During the lockdown months Yinka discovered a new side of London in green spaces that he’d never explored before and he found community among strangers.

“I spent time in Richmond Park and Kew Gardens, just talking to strangers. It was easy to bond because we shared the same frustration, confusion, anxiety. I would do the same walk every week and really got familiar with the same people,” he says.

“Talking to people about their pain, their stories, and their fears is how I get inspired to try and change things. It gets me thinking about how I can bring joy to people’s lives in the city spaces that surround them. That’s what motivates the murals I’ve been doing.”

'Creative Courts', Canary Wharf


Democracy is another motivation. With the murals everyone is able to have an art piece in their ‘home’ Yinka explains because you can just look out of the window and they’re there. “They’re something to look at, like a shrine, to look at the text and the colour and think ‘this is ok’. Things are going to get better.”

Yinka appreciates that many of his projects only really come alive when people begin to interact with them. “There's no life in the work without the people,” he says. “I’ve worked on a playground in Parsloes Park in Barking called Flamboyance of Flamingos that was commissioned by Create London. It’s just opened, but even before when there were barriers around it until the council officially signs it off, but people are breaking through and having a good time. So, the work is already alive. For me the people are the fabric of anything I do. They are the ones that breathe life into the spaces.”

As well as creating spaces for children, Yinka has also worked with people in addiction recovery. For his project Restoration Station, which was part of London Design Festival 2017, he ran a series of workshops on upcycling chairs and encouraged the volunteers involved to find colours that told their own personal narratives. Restoration Station was intended to help the volunteers find positive memories to project onto the chairs.

“People are kind enough to say that I inspire them, or that my work makes them feel competent or strong, or gives them a voice,” he says. “I think I have a responsibility to make conscious design, design that impacts change and makes people feel seen and heard. My work is about trying to make design inclusive.”

'Laundarette of Dreams', LEGO



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