Designer-maker Yinka Ilori on his Nigerian inspirations

Portrait of Yinka Ilori sitting on a leather sofa

Designer-maker Yinka Ilori on his Nigerian inspirations

Photographs Andy Donohoe

Designer, furniture maker and upcycling champion Yinka Ilori on ‘relaxed fluidity’ musical inspiration and how his Nigerian roots inform his work…

In his speech at the launch of the inaugural London Craft Week in 2015, the artist, potter and broadcaster Grayson Perry proposed an idea of ‘relaxed fluidity’ – the point at which perfect happiness is attained. This involves the satisfaction of making something with one’s own hands, coupled with the relaxation of listening to one’s favourite music. In Perry’s eyes, the ideal is to be able to drift off while working, almost tuning out as the body finds a natural rhythm, lost in both music and making.

This idea really resonated with us and was the inspiration behind the collaboration we instigated between Sonos and designer Yinka Ilori, intended to demonstrate the powerful effect that music and home listening could have on the creative workflow.

Product designer and self-professed up-cycling nut Yinka Ilori is best known for his highly narrative work, where each piece of furniture he creates tells a story. Referencing and influenced by his Nigerian roots as well as his urban London upbringing, his work fuses cultures and concepts. Whether inspired by his parents’ favourite Afrobeats or a story of a boyhood friend from his old London estate, Yinka uses the world and rhythms around him to feed his creativity, using a dynamic palette of form, colour and pattern with a sense of wit and warmth…

Books and fabric on a green bookshelf Chair with a blue and orange fish print fabric

How did it all start?  How did you become a designer?
My background is in product design and furniture making. I graduated from London Metropolitan University in 2009 and from my first exhibition it grew from there. I really didn’t expect it to be a big as it is now! I think the point where it all clicked was when I did an internship with Lee Broom. I was with Lee Broom for about a month and when I left, whilst it was great there, I felt that there I had no connection as a designer with the work, so I thought I’d go back to my roots – that’s Nigerian and Yoruba culture. So I began to fuse being British and Nigerian into an object, to make a chair that you could connect with, have a conversation with and that has become my style.

Colourful plastic woven rugs

Tell us more about the Nigerian connection.
For me, growing up and seeing my parents being so proud of their culture, I was quite jealous. They had this clear identity, but I was sort of in-between. I wanted to scratch the surface and find out more about my culture: the Yoruba language, why they wear such colourful clothes, why Nigerians spend so much money on jewellery and why culture and status is so important to my parents.  For me it was about bringing all of this into a chair. In fact now it’s become my subject for anything I want to discuss.  It all starts with a chair. I think maybe it’s because they are so accessible, easy to digest. They make you smile and then I hope, think.

Why the focus on chairs?
I did a project called Our Chair inspired by Martino Gamper’s project 100 Chairs in 100 Days. It was all about finding an old object and  giving it a new life, a new meaning. We live in a culture where if an object is damaged or in need of repair, we replace it. I got really tired of that and I wanted to fuse two or three objects into new piece and give it a new narrative.

Growing up, my parents would always have a particular chair they sat on and when Dad came home, if you were in his chair you’d have to get up and move! I think we take chairs for granted, as just objects to sit on, but there’s a lot more to them. To me a chair holds emotions and feelings – it’s quite deep object.

Part of a colour block painting with blue, pink, orange and green on a white wall

How does music fit into all the whole process?
My parents loved music. We were bombarded with it every bloody day – African music was played non-stop. I used to hate it… well, not hate it, I just didn’t really understand what the hell is was! It didn’t make sense to my ears. But now I love it.

Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé – these artists were pioneers in the 1960s and 70s but are still huge today. I like to listen to what they’re singing in Yoruba or Nigerian and breakdown what they are saying. They often sing in parables or African ‘words of wisdom’ so I take these words and put them into an object. It reminds me of home – I was born and raised in the UK but I feel like have a connection with Nigeria through the music. So when I’m in in the studio I like listen to this music and it makes me feel like I’m in Lagos with all its hustle and bustle; it’s quite a crazy city!

I’m also heavily influenced by grime too. I remember in school there’d be always be a group of 50-60 boys emceeing and beatboxing. We’d listen to Rinse FM and pirate radio. It’s an eclectic mix – grime, African music, some hip hop and rap. There are so many different messages in music and it’s about taking the bits out that you want to use in your work, or feel you can connect with.

yinkailori.com
Listen to Yinka’s Afrobeats and Rhymes playlist here

A Craft Collaboration in association with sonos.com