Yinka Ilori was one of the faces at this past year’s London Design Festival. In four installations and events dotted around the city, he used his trademark bright colours and gloriously graphic Dutch-wax prints in a subtle examination of race, inclusion/exclusion, class, hierarchy – and of what it means to be bicultural. We meet up with the London-based creative to discuss his passion for colour, Nigerian culture and narrative.

During LDF you hosted a talk about multiculturalism in design. It’s disappointing that London’s multicultural character isn’t represented more often in the design community or at the city’s major design-related events.
YINKA ILORI: I know. Dezeen published a design census* earlier this year showing that 73 per cent of the design industry is white and only 3 per cent is black. That’s pretty crazy. As someone who grew up in London with Nigerian parents, my narrative is very different to that of many other designers. That’s what makes London so special. I think it’s important that we try to reflect the different narratives in design. 

[*Research for the design census – an international survey of thousands of designers – was undertaken by US professional body AIGA and Google.]

Tell me about the workshops you conducted with trainees from East London-based Restoration Station, a social enterprise that offers courses in woodwork and furniture restoration – as well as work experience – to people recovering from addiction.
Growing up in North London, I saw lots of people going through tough times – some from broken families, some living a life of crime. No one had ever said to them, you are talented; you don’t need to do this. It was great to be able to work with the people at Restoration Station – to tell them what I care about, how I use colour and how it makes me feel.

During the workshops, I didn’t give the participants too much information. I simply encouraged them to tell their own stories through chairs. A lot of them were quite nervous about using colour, but over the years I’ve realized that the mistakes you make can be the most beautiful part of a project.

Do you think design should focus more on social issues?
Yes, I do. Of course it’s a business. It’s about money. About selling. But for me, if there’s no social element to design, then why are we doing it? Yes, there are great-looking tables, chairs and sideboards, but how are they benefiting society?

What was it like to visit Nigeria for the first time?
I went with my parents when I was 10 or 11. That was the moment I fell in love with what it means to be Nigerian – to be African as well as British. I’d always been a little jealous of my parents, who were so immersed in their native culture. I remember thinking, why haven’t I been here before?

How did your penchant for working with chairs begin?
In my first year of study we did a project called Our Chair. It was inspired by Martino Gamper and his 100 Chairs in 100 Days. I began to fall in love with storytelling, upcycling and the idea of giving found objects a new identity.

The thing about chairs is that they all have a story.
Exactly. That chair you’re sitting on is by Marcel Breuer. It may be a fake. I don’t know, but I love it. I bought it for £15 in West London. People have cried on that chair. They’ve been happy and sad. It’s seen so many emotions. You can get really attached to chairs. If you came home and someone was sitting in your chair, you’d be like, what are you doing?

Do you sometimes worry about being typecast as the man who repurposes chairs?
Yeah, it’s tricky. I don’t really like the word ‘upcycling’. There’s so much shit upcycling out there! [Laughs.] I think my work is about more than just upcycling; it’s about narrative. After I’ve worked on the chairs, they become sculptures. I’m starting to do more installations, too. They give me more room to interact with people.

To read the full interview with Yinka Ilori, pick up a copy of Frame 120.