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Design is just Design

WRITTEN BY: Martina Olivetti

DesignUnited Kingdom

Yinka Ilori is a designer based in London. He was born and raised in London by Nigerian parents. His first visit to Nigeria was at a very young age: “When I went for the first time I loved it and I started to go every year. But my parents could not afford for me to go there every year, so I started working to afford the travel. Now I just love going back. I find inspiration there for my work and meeting all sorts of different people. I love it. It’s awesome”. He has since returned to Nigeria 4 or 5 times.

Yinka started his career as an artist. He says, “I was more interested in fine art before, but I didn’t make any money as an artist, to be honest, so I did a design course in furniture, photography, and all spectrums of design. I was most interested, however, in narratives through furniture”.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in Furniture and Product Design from London Metropolitan University. During these years he started a few of his own projects. One project, entitled “Art Chair”, involved finding two old chairs and combining them to make one piece. He began by separating the components of the chairs and reconstructing them to include two original elements into one piece. “Sometimes the result is not functional or good-looking, but I really love it because behind every chair there’s a story. I was very grateful to be involved in people’s lives through their personal stories.”  He now specializes in up-cycling furniture.

From 2013, Nigerian parables became Yinka’s main source of inspiration.

When I was young, I was an outgoing person and my parents worried about me getting in trouble or getting hurt, so they used tell me different typical Nigerian parables about being good, being bad, or listening to your parents. I didn’t fully understand many of these parables until I was older, and then I started using them in my work.

What's the role of parables in your work? It seems you want to communicate with people through parables.

I think it is important for me to use these parables to teach others about my culture. It is quite interesting to share these parables with people from different backgrounds. I also incorporate a dose of humor into my work. For example, I designed a lamp-chair called Beauty. People initially find the work funny – a regular chair with a lamp and lampshade as one of its legs. However, the chair also conveys a powerful message behind the humor: inequality. If you think beyond the outside, you can discover a powerful meaning behind objects. I love the narrative behind the chair – this chair is not just a chair. For me, a chair is a powerful object and can also symbolize social cues. When I was growing up, my dad had a chair that I used to sit in when he was at work. However, my dad is the head of the house, so when he would come home from work, I had to get off the chair. The chair is therefore an ongoing narrative for me. The chair in itself is not important, but the person who sits on it is, so I like to explore the relationship between the object and the person.

What do you think about the exhibition Making Africa at the Vitra Design Museum? 

I think this exhibition is amazing. I’ve always been a fan of the Vitra Design Museum. One of my favorite designers is George Nelson who designed the coconut chair, who is also featured in this exhibition. I’m honored to be in this exhibition with these amazing designers whose work I grew up observing. My piece ‘Let there be light’ (2013) is being shown in this exhibition. Social class inspires the piece – it talks about hope and social situations. I am exhibiting this piece as an homage to that year, since it was very important in my career. At the beginning the objects I made were recognized only as functional. I discovered over the years though that my work became art. I don’t like the term ‘African design’ because for me, design is just design. And I don’t want to identify my work as just African design – I’m British and Nigerian, but it doesn’t mean that my work is just “African.” I want to show other people the positivity and beauty from Nigeria. I think this is is the point of the exhibition: showing positive things from Nigeria, as well as other African countries. There are so many stories in this exhibition, and I think what is very important is that everyone got a personal work area to show their work. By the same token, I’m happy to be here with the other designers because for me this year is the year of collaboration. I want to do more and more with other designers.