Inspired by the West African fabrics and fables he grew up with, and (perhaps counterintuitively) by the muted landscape of postmodern London, British-Nigerian artist and designer Yinka Ilori uses color and pattern to blur the boundaries between art and design.
Ilori’s work spans furniture, sculpture, interiors, architectural installations, and street art (his playful murals and pedestrian crossings enliven all corners of the British capital), all of it focused on bringing positivity and joy to communities.
Earlier this year, amid collaborations with the likes of Lego and Superblue, he was even appointed Courvoisier’s first “ambassador of joy.”
Now, the artist and designer is gearing up for the opening of two major projects: his first institutional solo show, “Yinka Ilori: Parables of Happiness,” at the Design Museum in London (September 15, 2022–June 25, 2023) and a presentation at next year’s Venice Biennale Architecture Exhibition, where he will show in the British Pavilion.
Meanwhile, in collaboration with British architect Sam Jacob, Ilori recently designed his own studio space. The West London atelier embodies the optimism of his oeuvre; it is multifunctional and wonderfully bright.
“We brought in colors from my work to create a fun and playful atmosphere where imaginations can run free,” Ilori said. He took Artnet News inside for a tour.
Can you send us a snap of the most indispensable items in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?
When I went to Nigeria for the first time and met my grandmother, she didn’t speak any English, but she spoke to us through her clothes—the fabrics, textures, and colors were really beautiful and empowering. That experience is what motivated me to study my culture and interrogate what it meant to be Black and British in London.
The portrait of her that hangs in the communal area [by London-based artist Inca Jordan] always reminds me of this really formative experience, which has been the inspiration behind so much of my work.
What is a studio task on your agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?
My agenda for the week has consisted of meetings and surveying upcoming projects. I’m currently working on a number of large-scale projects which launch later this year, including my first institutional show at the Design Museum. So it’s a very busy and exciting time at the studio.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I like to be surrounded by sounds that create a positive and uplifting atmosphere, from music (Fela Kuti, Burna Boy, Wizkid, Kano) to the laughter of my team.
Music is incredibly important to me. I love how musicians tell stories and bring together words, poetry, and sounds to evoke an emotional response.
Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
Is there a picture you can send of your current work in progress at the studio?
Last year, I designed a basketball court in Canary Wharf and alongside it, I designed a basketball. It was created as an art object, but I hoped it would encourage people to get outside following the lockdown, be playful, and engage with others in their community through sport.
I love bringing art to people in unexpected ways. We’re just about to drop two new, limited-edition basketballs.
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?
I draw inspiration from a number of places, from nature to music. I’ll even go for a cycle around London’s parks. But the collection of photographs of my grandparents is something I always look at when I feel stuck or uninspired.
I only met my grandparents once, but these photographs transport me to a different space and time. They are also where my use of color comes from.
What trait do you most admire in a work of art?
I really admire work that can make an audience feel like they are part of the piece or can connect with the artist in some way. Artwork that has a strong narrative and can take people on a journey, or work that is deeply personal and vulnerable and creates a sense of intimacy between an artist and a viewer, can be incredibly powerful.
What images or objects do you look at while you work?
I have a dedicated office space, which is adjacent to where the team sits, and where I spend most of my time sketching, designing, and holding meetings. Across from where I sit are red sliding doors, which we customized to create an arched doorway with yellow portholes. I tend to have the doors open most of the time, so my view is usually of the central communal space and kitchen, where the team comes together.
What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you and why?
I was recently at the launch of “Black Chapel,” the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion by Theaster Gates (on view through October 16, 2022). The installation was inspired by kilns in Stoke-on-Trent and was also a memorial to the artist’s father.
It also acts as a gathering place and provides a chance for introspection. The structure has an opening at the top, and when the sun shines through, it creates an incredible interplay between light and shadow, which is something that I have been exploring recently as well.
What made you choose this particular studio over others?
This is my first permanent studio space. I wanted to create an environment that very much felt like mine, with an experimental and dynamic layout.
Having grown up on a council estate, I have a very distinct idea of space, with openness and sharing at the core. I chose this unit because it was a blank canvas and enabled us to create a layered space in which we could carve out different areas for creation, collaboration, and display.
I worked with Sam Jacob of Sam Jacob Studio and a former director of FAT Architects, whose work I have admired for many years. We have a lot of common ground in the way we include whimsy, elements of playfulness, and storytelling into our work.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Inspiring, positive, and joyful.
How does the studio environment influence the way you work?
We took a slightly different approach to the space, which has very much influenced the environment and the way my team and I work. My ambition has been to create an environment where team interaction is at the core—where we can exchange ideas, brainstorm, and problem solve efficiently and effectively.
We created distinctive zones for workstations, an office, exhibition and archive space, and a communal table and kitchen. At the same time, we used transitory boundaries and partitions, including curtains and sliding doors, to create both openness and privacy and to ensure that the studio is multifunctional and really usable. The flexibility allows the space to respond to different ways of working and socializing.
We also brought in colors from my work to create a fun and playful atmosphere where our imaginations can run free. My office is predominantly blue and pink, drawing on tones from my work, so I’m always surrounded by colors that make me feel inspired.
In the kitchen area, I incorporated a mural that says “Love Always Wins.” I originally designed it as a permanent, public artwork for Harrow Council. It brings a really positive message to the studio.