‘I’m surrounded by colors that inspire me’: Artist Yinka Ilori takes us to her bustling West London studio
Inspired by the West African fabrics and fables he grew up with and (perhaps counterintuitively) the muted landscape of postmodern London, British-Nigerian artist and designer Yinka Ilori uses color and pattern to blur the lines between art and design.
Ilori’s work spans furniture, sculpture, interiors, architectural installations and street art (his murals and pedestrian crossings enliven every corner of the UK capital), all focused on bringing positivity and play to communities.
Earlier this year, amid collaborations with the likes of Lego and Superblue, he was even named Courvoisier’s first “Ambassador of Joy”.
Today, the artist and designer is preparing the opening of two major projects: his first institutional solo exhibition, “Yinka Ilori: Parables of Happiness”, at the Design Museum in London (September 15, 2022 – June 25, 2023) and a presentation at the Venice Biennale architecture exhibition next year, where it will show in the British pavilion.
Meanwhile, in collaboration with British architect Sam Jacob, Ilori has recently designed his own studio. The West London studio embodies the optimism of his work; it is multifunctional and wonderfully bright.
“We brought colors from my work to create a fun and playful atmosphere where the imagination can run free,” Ilori said. He took Artnet News inside for a tour.
Can you send us a picture of your studio’s most essential items and tell us why you can’t live without them?
When I first went to Nigeria and met my grandmother, she didn’t speak English, but she spoke to us through her clothes – the fabrics, textures and colors were really beautiful and empowering . This experience is what motivated me to study my culture and question what it meant to be black and British in London.
Her portrait hanging in the common area [by London-based artist Inca Jordan] I always remember this truly formative experience, which inspired much of my work.
What is the studio task on your calendar this week that you are most looking forward to?
My schedule for the week consisted of meetings and reviewing upcoming projects. I am currently working on a number of large scale projects to be launched later this year, including my first institutional exhibition at the Design Museum. So it’s a very busy and exciting time at the studio.
What atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I love being 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 the way musicians tell stories and bring together words, poetry and sound to evoke an emotional response.
Who are your favorite artists, curators or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
Es Devlin, David Adjaye, Talk Art, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yinka Shonibare.
Is there a photo you can send of your current work in progress to the studio?
Last year I designed a basketball court in Canary Wharf and next door I designed a basketball. It was created as an art object, but I hoped it would encourage people to get out after lockdown, be playful, and engage with other members of their community through sport.
I love bringing art to people in unexpected ways. We are about to release two new limited edition basketballs.
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get out of it?
I am inspired by many places, from nature to music. I will even go for a bike ride in the parks of London. But my grandparents’ photography collection 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. This is 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 the audience feel like they are part of the work or connect with the artist in some way. A work of art that has a strong narrative and can take people on a journey, or a work that is deeply personal and vulnerable and creates a sense of intimacy between artist and viewer, can be incredibly powerful.
What images or objects do you look at while you work?
I have a dedicated office space, adjacent to where the team is located, and where I spend most of my time sketching, designing, and holding meetings. Across from where I’m sitting are red sliding doors, which we’ve 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 common area and the kitchen, where the team meets.
What is the last exhibition you saw that marked you and why?
I was recently at the launch of “Black Chapel”, the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion at Theaster Gates (on view until October 16, 2022). The installation was inspired by the ovens in Stoke-on-Trent and was also a memorial to the artist’s father.
It also acts as a gathering place and offers a chance for introspection. The structure has an opening at the top, and when the sun shines through it creates an incredible interplay of light and shadow, which I’ve also been exploring recently.
What made you choose this studio over others?
This is my first permanent studio. I wanted to create an environment that looks a lot like me, with an experimental and dynamic layout.
Having grown up in a housing estate, I have a very precise idea of space, centered on openness and sharing. I chose this unit because it was a blank canvas and allowed us to create a layered space where we could cut 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 in common in how we include fantasy, playful elements and storytelling in our work.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Inspirational, positive and joyful.
How does the studio environment influence your way of working?
We took a slightly different approach to the space, which greatly 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 heart – where we can exchange ideas, brainstorm and solve problems effectively and efficiently.
We have created separate areas for workstations, an office, exhibition and archive space, a common table and kitchen. At the same time, we used transitional boundaries and partitions, including curtains and sliding doors, to create both openness and privacy and to ensure the studio is multi-functional and truly usable. The flexibility allows the space to cater to different ways of working and socializing.
We also brought colors from my work to create a fun and playful atmosphere where our imaginations can run free. My office is mostly blue and pink, drawing inspiration from the tones of my work, so I’m always surrounded by colors that inspire me.
In the kitchen, 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.
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