Ones to Watch

Parables for Happiness

Anna Carnick

Yinka Ilori on storytelling through design, trusting the process, and his solo show at Londons Design Museum

London-based artist and designer Yinka Ilori has made a fantastic splash on the international stage in recent years thanks to uplifting, boldly colorful designs that run the gamut from furniture to public art. Driven by a firm belief that art and design should be accessible to all, Ilori’s exuberant aesthetic draws on a mix of cultures that came together in the north London diaspora community where he grew up, always evoking a sense of joy and optimism. Over the last few years in particular, this playful, positive spirit has often felt like a much-needed salve. 

Ilori’s current solo show at the Design Museum in London, Parables for Happiness, offers a deep look into the ways the designer’s British-Nigerian heritage and upbringing shapes his practice, and how he uses design to tell stories that connect and inspire. We sat down with Ilori for insights on the exhibition and much, much more.

Love Always Wins mural by Yinka Ilori for Harrow Council; Photo © Andy Stagg

First off, congratulations on the show at the Design Museum. What do you most hope people will take away from seeing the exhibition?

Thank you. I’ve spent years visiting the Design Museum, admiring the works on display and drawing inspiration from them. To now have my work shown here is truly an honor. When I first started my career, I was upcycling furniture, which conveyed narratives of my heritage and upbringing. Over time my practice has developed and taken me in many different directions from playgrounds to pavilions and even homeware.

I’ve gained recognition for my use of color, pattern, and storytelling as well as my love for community and bringing people together. I always felt my work didn’t follow design trends. This exhibition showcases my work alongside fabrics, reference materials, albums, as well as the work of other designers. It charts my journey as a designer and my inspirations over the years, and I hope it will give visitors insight into my design language and creative process.

Clockwise from top: Exhibition views of Parables for Happiness; Photos © Felix Speller |  Yinka Ilori; Portrait ©  Lewis Khan

Tell us about the title, Parables for Happiness.

A lot of my work has been inspired by traditional Nigerian parables, which my parents would tell me growing up. They are essentially words of wisdom. When you first listen to them, you might not fully understand it, but over time you get the impact and weight of what they’re trying to teach you.

These parables led me to understand the power of storytelling, which forms a really key part of my work. I draw on many of those that I heard in my childhood and have incorporated some of them into my work. Every project of mine has a narrative woven in which asks you to reflect on your community, your family, and yourself as well as elements that try to evoke joy and happiness. So the title reflects that idea.

The show presents a broad range of your own work alongside pieces that have inspired you—such as an array of Nigerian textiles, chairs by designers like David Adjaye and Jane Atfield, a photo of the playground in Islington where you grew up, and much more. Why was it important to you to present these pieces in conversation with your own?

The exhibition isn’t just about things that have inspired me. It’s [also] a deeper look at how my heritage and upbringing as a British-Nigerian has shaped my way of thinking and designing. There’s a range of reference materials but also items like my name badge from when I worked at M&S and was dreaming of starting my own studio. So it’s about my journey, but also about encouraging young designers to keep dreaming and pursuing their goals.

I felt it was very important to include the estate playground, which was an incredibly brutalist structure and space. Many people feel that estates are generally unsafe. The media are always talking about gang violence on estates, but [as] someone who lived and grew up there, I felt it was an incredible place. It taught me so much about communities, cultures, and people, and it’s been instrumental in shaping my outlook as an artist and designer. I saw the world very differently growing up and feel spaces like these gave me an ability to learn from different people as well as the creative freedom to play and dream. I felt it was important to show people where my love for play spaces and community comes from.

Sir David Adjaye’s Washington Skeleton Chair for Knoll (2013) and Ilori at the exhibition Parables of Happiness; Photos © Felix Speller

The chairs included in the exhibition are all in different forms, colors, and materials. I wanted to select pieces by some of my favorite designers, who I admired and respected and felt were pushing the boundaries of what came before.  For example, David Adjaye paved the way for many designers and architects by demonstrating that you could move into different creative spaces, which was incredibly inspiring. I also wanted to include objects which have been informed by a narrative or incorporated storytelling. Even though we’re from different generations and we have all had our individual creative journeys, I wanted to show these different ideas in conversation with each other.

Set in East Dulwich, Colour Palace is a celebratory fusion of European and African cultural traditions created by Yinka Ilori and Pricegore (2019). Photo © Andy Stagg

You’ve often described yourself as a storyteller. What are some of the key narratives you wish to convey through your work?

Many of the stories I try and tell through my work are about people, place, and community. I see my work as a way to express ideas and encourage people to be loving, kind, and positive. For example, “If Chairs Could Talk” is based on the parable “‘no matter how long the neck of a giraffe is, it still cant see the future.” The story is about not judging people based on their current circumstances, because you never know what the future holds. I created five chairs that were based on people from my childhood and tried to tell their stories through these objects. Each chair reflected on who the individual has become over time. I use traditional Nigerian folklore to tell meaningful but personal stories.

Holding on to joy and optimism has felt all the more important against the backdrop of the past few years. What role do you think joy can play in the face of challenge and adversity?

I think joy leads to hope and allows people to dream of a better tomorrow. I think that’s what’s so powerful about the work we do here in the studio. We create joy and through that optimism and hope.

Launderette of Dreams for Lego incorporates over 200,000 Lego bricks, which are used both as a structural material and as objects for play. Photos © Mark Cocksedge

Where do you look for your own sense of joy or optimism?

I find it through traveling; whether sitting on a plane or train, I bring out my sketch book and listen to music. I take in the smells [and] food and have conversations. Being immersed in different spaces or engaging with a new place, even for a couple hours, is really inspiring. It’s when I produce my best work.

How do you think your design practice has evolved over the last few years? Any dream projects out there for you?

Creating a sense of joy, hope, and optimism is something I explore through my works, and it’s something that I really want to see more of in design. When I first started, I was working with furniture and specifically chairs, but I’ve moved into public spaces, set design, pavilions, and playgrounds. Where I’m in my life now personally as well as with work is that I want to project a different narrative of color. Looking at colors that people wouldn’t necessarily equate with happiness or joy. I’m looking at muted tones and the role of color in different cultures. I’m starting to look at how we can create work that encourages mindfulness and creates a place in the public realm to pause, [and to] digest our thoughts. I’m also looking at how joy, love, hope, and mindfulness can be combined together in a public space.

My dream project would be to design a boutique hotel. It would be an amazing project, and I’d love to do not just the interiors but every aspect of it—from the architecture to the bedding! A full studio project somewhere in the countryside would be incredible.

Ilori’s pop-up shop in Shoreditch, East London. Drawing inspiration from West African architecture, Ilori created a unique retail environment to present his recent and new collections. Photos © Ed Reeves

What’s one big lesson you’ve learned during your career so far?

Trust the process. I’ve never fitted into the design trend, and I’ve really had to learn to not just trust my creative outlook and language, but also to trust that the right project will come along. For any designer who is waiting or looking for success, my advice would be that you’ve got to trust the process and refine your vision.

What are you working on now? What’s up next?

As I mentioned, I’m currently working on this new design language which foregrounds mindfulness and explores a more muted color palette. We’ve got a number of projects in the pipeline which will be announced soon, but you’re going to see this new journey that I’m taking. I think it’s going to be an interesting next few months. ◆


Parables for Happiness is on view at the Design Museum in London until June 25, 2023.