Online | Design

Yinka Ilori Q&A

London, UK

With public realm projects on hold, the colour- and pattern-centric designer has pivoted to bring out a homewares collection – and it all started with a pair of socks...

DESIGN ANTHOLOGY: Is the new homeware collection the product of lockdown?

YINKA ILORI: Yes, it started during lockdown. I’ve always wanted to do a homeware collection, but never had the time to do it. Then some of our projects in the studio were postponed or cancelled, so it just gave me the opportunity. So, I started off doing a pair of socks – which isn’t homeware, I know – and that had quite a mad response on social media. Then it went from doing socks to doing trays, enamel mugs, stoneware plates and bowls…it ended up being a collection that never wasn’t really planned.

DA: Was that quite new for you, dealing with manufacturers in such a direct way?

YI: It took lots of back and forth with our suppliers in places like Portugal and Nepal. We made mistakes along the way but it was a really fun process. Although I deal with manufacturers normally, they might be carpenters of fabricators, where I’ve got more of an idea about the materiality of what I’m producing. My work’s very colourful so materiality’s important to me: I want to make sure that whatever material I use still has that richness and vibrancy.

Originally the tea towels and tablecloths were going to be printed cotton, then I got the samples through and the quality wasn’t great. But instead we had them made in Portugal in a jacquard weave, and it was just beautiful: for me it turned a mundane object you use in your house into something that could be a piece of art you could frame.

When you’re not able to go many places, home becomes so important; it was the only place that I could feel safe, and feel hopeful

DA: Did the collection also have to fit the sustainability credentials that you’re known for?

YI: Yes, one of the main things for us was understanding the materials and where they came from. So, the enamel mugs from Poland are a really robust material with a long lifespan; we spoke to the suppliers of the jacquard weave about where the cotton came from; we made sure the workers in Nepal making the rugs were being paid fairly – they’re part of GoodWeave. We’ve also thought about how to minimise packaging. Basically, we’ve done our best – I am sure there will be mistakes that we’ve made because it happened so quickly, but we’ll improve.

DA: Do you like the idea of everyday objects being able to spread joy?

YI: Totally, yeah. Obviously I spent a lot of time at home over lockdown and people always ask me, “is your house colourful?” and honestly it isn’t, but during lockdown it turned into this colour palace. I felt like it was lacking joy, and I ended up painting every room in my house – the work’s still going on now.

When you’re not able to go many places, home becomes so important; it was the only place that I could feel safe, and feel hopeful. And eating with your loved ones that you’re in this bubble with becomes this a key, intimate moment, so things like tea towels and trays and plates, they do bring joy.

Omi rug
Aami Aami tablecloth
Aami Aami enamel mug
Omi dinner plate

DA: Lots of the stories behind the products are to do with your childhood memories – is that a recurring influence on your work?

YA: Yes, I grew up in north London on a huge estate which was like 60 families, three floors and so multicultural and diverse – we were one big family. If I wanted food from Ghana or Poland I could just knock on my neighbours’ door: we shared cultural ideas and values and it was such a loving community.

One of the biggest things for me was going to council-estate parties, or weddings, and one of the things I remember about going to these places was the colours that people wore, and especially my parents, who would still wear Nigerian fabrics even if they were going to a Turkish wedding. To me they were such joyful and special moments: they might have worn pink or yellow or orange and I remember how happy they were. So my memories and my childhood experiences have always been in my heart.

The Colour Palace at Dulwich Picture Gallery (2019)

DA: How do you find switching between scales, and being able to move from something like a large-scape installation down to a pair of socks?

YI: I don’t think it’s any different. If I’m creating patterns for a public realm project, I always think about having my work on a product as well. There’s always a question in my mind about how they would look on everyday objects.

So I have four sketchbooks that are just full of patterns and colours, then my computer has a folder of 300 patterns that have never been used before. The Colour Palace [Dulwich Picture Gallery’s 2019 summer pavilion] started off really small, with triangles and circles and squares, but seeing it on a such large scale, it does change the experience, opening up colour and pattern to different types of people. It makes it more accessible.

Entrance to Get Up Stand Up Now at Somerset House

DA: Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?

YI: Get Up Stand Up Now at Somerset House was one of my favourite projects, which was curated by Zak Ové and celebrated black creatives. What I loved about it was, it’s just a white palette in there, no colour at all, but I had the opportunity to take over the whole space, and respond to the artwork in each room. It was a tough project because these were really respectable artists and I had to create a backdrop for their work, without competing with it.

DA: What have you got coming up?

YI: Another project with Somerset House that was meant to be happening this year but got postponed. I’m also doing another playground project in London and public installs – some in the UK, Belin and Athens.

DA: Has the pandemic changed you?

YI: Although what’s happened [this year] was so awful, I’ve also learned to slow down a bit. I think now I’m a bit more able to say no and not try and do everything straight away, and I’m going to try and carry on with that.