Nigeria meets Willy Wonka: Inside designer Yinka Ilori’s new studio | Interiors

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Jhe freshly painted, contrasting surfaces of Yinka Ilori’s new studio in west London serve as the color palette for her design team. “I sometimes find them looking for tones to apply to projects,” says the British-Nigerian artist and designer. As you enter the space, there is a strong powder blue on the wall to your left, a pink just paler than bubblegum on the right, verdant green curtains hang from the high ceiling, and mustard yellow adorns the floor.

The whole setup is playful: objects and illustrations appear with patterns everywhere you look. “I’m obsessed with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” says Ilori. “This immersive, dreamy, psychedelic-like space. When people walk in here they lose their breath, they can’t concentrate. You enter a different world. The ambience embodies Ilori’s heritage. “When I go to Nigeria and go to the market, there is color everywhere.”

The workshop meeting space, with doors designed by Sam Jacob opening onto Ilori’s desk, and models of chairs he made for an exhibition. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

Wedged between MOT garages and cash-and-carry in a maze-like industrial area, this studio is four times the size of Iloris’ former space. He moved here last October to expand his design practice and accommodate his team of eight. The work was completed in February.

Ilori, 35, was born in north London and spent his childhood in Islington. “Growing up in a Nigerian family, education was very important, but my parents always pushed us to find our passion.” He studied furniture and product design at London Metropolitan University. “When I finished university, I didn’t really see any other practice for telling stories in a way that I could connect to: that’s what led me to want to start my own.”

The studio is full of creations telling the story of his career. The back wall, which overlooks a meeting room and kitchen, is covered floor to ceiling with rows of chairs – elements that have established Ilori’s name in the design world. There are traditional fat spoon-shaped chairs upholstered in Nigerian fabric and painted bright blue, chairs fused together to form a single item, and one with its back replaced by a patterned headboard. “They are precious and personal to me and to the people I know,” he says.

In 2015, his show If Chairs Could Talk – telling stories through recycled chairs – was a hit at the London Design Festival. “I used to find these chairs in London, and pile them up in my bedroom (which wasn’t that big), because my mother didn’t have any in the kitchen. Then I would take them to my little studio and work on them.

The kitchen filled with items from Ilori's homeware collection
The kitchen is stocked with items from Ilori’s homeware collection. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

The project was influenced by the Nigerian parables he grew up listening to. “When we sit in a chair, we tell stories, we argue, we cry – we feel so many emotions with this object,” he says. A piece from the collection was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Others can be purchased through the studio.

Opposite are two Lego washing machines. They were part of an installation called The Launderette of Dreams, which he designed through workshops with primary schools in east London last year. Over 200,000 Lego bricks were used to reinvent a community laundromat into an electrifying play space.

Behind his desk are three brightly colored basketballs: one of them is a winning design by a schoolgirl in east London, as part of a competition organized by Ilori. It is part of a playground redesign he has done with locals, which opens later this month to mark the centenary of Becontree, the UK’s largest municipal estate.

Cups and tumblers
Enamel mugs and tumblers by Ilori, available at Selfridges and FarFetch. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

“I grew up in an area,” he says. “Galleries weren’t something we went into, but now I’m taking great art – or any art – by putting it in a field and saying, ‘You deserve to experience art too. ‘art. I’m just trying to say that art is for everyone. His dream is to one day have a Yinka Ilori sculpture park.

Ilori has transformed indescribable level crossings on Tottenham Court Road with striking murals in his signature colors and patterns. “I found people standing in the middle of the road trying to take a selfie, risking their lives,” he says in disbelief. “When you see my work, you can’t control your smile. Energy controls you. I like it.

But not everyone is so receptive. The summer before the pandemic, he designed an outdoor pavilion at the Dulwich Picture Gallery called the Color Palace. An MP (whose name Ilori has decided not to disclose) has written to the architects involved saying it would be better suited to a Lagos slum.

A common thread in Ilori’s work is joy. “In our Nigerian household, we were brought up to have a positive attitude,” he says. “My mum and dad always said to us, ‘You’re amazing.’ I try to embrace that in the work I do. It’s influenced by the fabrics his family wore to weddings and church services. A large painting of his grandmother hangs next to the chairs. “What “she wears, there is a sense of pride in this fabric. It can be Swiss voile lace or Ankara fabric, exclusive and rich in color. Seeing the joy it brings, it was natural for me to wear it. integrate into my work.

Due to the public nature of Ilori’s work, the pandemic has seen many projects fall away, but new opportunities have also arisen. “I couldn’t go to the studio: people weren’t ordering work,” he says. “Everyone was at home and people were cooking loads of things – I was cooking jollof rice and sharing it online with my friends. People started investing in their homes because home was meant to be a place that would bring joy.

Cushions, candlesticks and tableware from the Ilori collection
Cushions, candlesticks and tableware from the Ilori collection. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

We sit at a table covered in a jacquard fabric from the Ilori homeware collection designed during lockdown. We drink from enamel tumblers decorated with a retro floral print, and on the kitchen shelves are her mugs with the slogan “Better days are coming, I promise”. Ilori’s favorite pieces in the collection are the woolen Tibetan rugs with geometric patterns surrounded by a contrasting border.

“I just brought one home,” he said, as if recognizing something he shouldn’t have done. “It’s funny, he says, because at home, I don’t have many rooms of my own. It’s more neutral and I use artwork, rugs and bowls to talk about color. My studio is where I am chaotic and where I dream, and then my home is where I could light a candle and relax.

The studio space appealed to Ilori because of its “brutality”. He worked with designer Sam Jacob to plan it; the feel is open, with opportunities for privacy. Jacob designed large arched red sliding doors with portholes that open into Ilori’s desk in a theatrical Willy Wonka style. The fourth wall in Ilori’s office is a double-ply curtain between him and his team. The first layer is a pastel rainbow transparent gauze, designed by Peter Saville for Kvadrat, called Technicolor Flux. When he needs privacy, he is accompanied by a heavy green curtain. “Everything is mobile,” he says. “Fabrics create shapes.”

Any tips for choosing bright colors for home interiors? “If a color gives you a positive impression,” he says, “trust your instincts and go with it. For me, pink is soothing. He admits that at first he regretted the yellow floor, but after one week he realized it worked. “My mum and dad didn’t have periods. They would contrast purple against blue or purple or green, and do so with confidence. I just try to avoid looking at the Pantone color of the year.

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Last month, Ilori held a workshop for inpatients at a London mental health facility for a charity called Hospital Rooms. “I walked in and didn’t tell them what my job was; I just said I was an artist and selected the color palette to use. And they talked about things that interested them and I asked them to paint messages on chairs. They actually wrote ‘Hope’ and ‘Dreams’, and I can’t forget that. It touched me – something in my color palette evokes hope.


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