Grabbing time with Yinka Ilori is tough. Between photo shoots, negotiating with potential retailers and working on projects at his studio, he’s a busy man. So it comes as a surprise to me that after almost an hour of chatting on the phone and my 134th question, he’s not rushing me off the line.
If you don’t know Ilori’s name, you should because the designer has likely brought a smile to your face long before you started reading this. Whether you climbed his Dulwich Colour Palace last summer (‘It brought people together, which was amazing’), cycled through Happy Street in Wandsworth (‘I found the response… overwhelmingly incredible’), walked past one of his many motivating murals or have strolled past Selfridges recently, thousands of Londoners have been privy to his work.
Ilori’s vibrant, colourful, joy-evoking designs have also won him commissions from the Brit Awards, NHS, Cannes Film Festival and Adidas, as well as securing him the London Design Festival’s prestigious Emerging Design prize. He has just finished up three window displays for the Selfridges Project Earth sustainability campaign, ‘dedicated to every sunrise that gives us the chance to make a change’, and a ‘Love Always Wins’ mural for Harrow City Council, aimed at ‘inspiring’ fellow north Londoners. Right now, he’s gearing up for the launch of his long-awaited homeware range, born out of lockdown.
Success hasn’t always come easily for Ilori, however. ‘Maximalism wasn’t really something that was celebrated [when I first started out] and I think a lot of people didn’t understand why I wanted to use colour in architecture or in furniture design.’
Standing outside Habitat on Tottenham Court Road, asking passers by for feedback on his early work, he was buoyed by much of their enthusiasm but got the impression that some couldn’t comprehend its vibrancy. ‘It was tough for me. I stood out. I was very different from any other designers. There were only a few designers or artists who were able to use colour and got that recognition, or understood that it was a bit more than just colour. It was about my identity.’
Influenced by his British Nigerian heritage, Ilori says his designs are a ‘mish-mash’ of both cultures. The colour in his work, he says, ‘stemmed from my parents, who were born and raised in Nigeria’. Growing up on an Islington estate, Ilori ‘saw them apply colour to a place that was very rich in culture but aesthetically very grey’. He says it was an incredible place to grow up among such a diverse community.
‘You get to understand that colour and what people wear is part of their culture, where they’re coming from. It gives people — and also it gave me — an insight of what it means to be Nigerian, a British Nigerian. Not only does it signify your identity but it also gives people a sense of belonging.’ The way his parents wore Swiss lace and Dutch wax prints inspired him to be bold with his work. ‘I just saw them do it really effortlessly and without sort of questioning what was right or wrong,’ he says.
The optimistic vibrancy of Nigerian culture isn’t all that has influenced his designs. Ilori says traditional parables, such as ‘no matter how long the neck of a giraffe is, it still cannot see the future’ and ‘any child that has two ears should listen’ have had a big influence on his work. ‘I don’t want to offend anyone who is religious,’ he says, ‘but they’re like the 10 commandments. They are like the Bible to me. They are my life teacher, they keep me in check.’ Taught to him through Nollywood films and his father — ‘sometimes you just don’t want to hear them’ — they’ve inspired him to obsess over words and create motivational works for key workers during the pandemic, such as the ‘Better Days Are Coming I Promise’ mural on Blackfriars Road in Southwark. ‘In everything I do now I’m trying to create words of wisdom or words of hope that we’re going to get through this. It’s a global pandemic; we’re all going through it together and no one is immune.’
His British roots can be seen in the structure of his work, which unlike many flouncy maximalist designs celebrates crisp, clean lines. ‘We don’t wear a lot of colour here. Our architecture isn’t colourful. If you look at British culture, it can be quite soft, understated. If you’ve seen the Colour Palace for example, the façade of it is very soft and linear and that for me is the British side of me coming out.’
The subject of diversity in design is one that Ilori is hesitant to talk about. ‘It’s something that has been discussed a lot during lockdown. I think a lot has changed since March and February. I think so much has come out of the big discussions we’ve been having within design and architecture.’ These conversations, Ilori says, are finally paving the way for a more diverse industry, highlighting deserving young designers such as Matt Collins and Kusheda Mensah of Modular By Mensah. ‘I’ve seen so many people who deserve to be spotlighted, not because they’re black or white or Asian — whatever their race is — but because they’re just good at what they do.’
While he gears up to launch his range of socks, enamelware mugs and tablecloths at Matchesfashion.com, Browns and SCP, he is already thinking about when it’s time to make way for new talent. ‘I’m 33 and people may say I’m in my prime. But someone will replace me at some point. I won’t be the exciting thing in 30 or 40 years time and I’m okay with that, I’m happy to let those people come through. Paving the way and opening those doors for people who are going to be better than me, have new ideas and be super exciting. It’s about trying to know when to let go.’ Wise words. But for now, at least, Yinka Ilori is just getting started.