Yinka Ilori on furniture with soul, upcycling and telling your own story

Yinka Ilori is making quite a name for himself in the design world. His relentless, sunbeam positivity, his dedication to sustainability and the sheer vibrant imagination behind his furniture makes him one of the most exciting creatives on the scene. It's why we recently interviewed him on our magazine, Creative Boom.

From his East London Studio, Yinka upcycles chairs. So far, so hipster-maker cliché, but the difference is that Yinka has a talent for using his work to communicate narratives and evoke strong emotional responses. From two or three found pieces of furniture, he creates sculptural hybrid chairs that muddle different design traditions and social histories into something colourful, heart-warming and completely new.

Next month, during the London Design Festival, he will be exhibiting a new collection of six chairs with a unique, immersive installation at Clerkenwell London, as part of Design Undefined. Titled ‘A Swimming Pool of Dreams’, the installation is a nostalgic and personal celebration of Yinka’s childhood visits to Margate with his family church, with three ‘swimming pools’ that recreate the eclectic Dutch Wax print patterns of African clothing.

Here are some extracts from our interview with Yinka. You can read the whole thing over on Creative Boom.

You upcycle chairs. What made you choose this particular sustainable path?

"Chairs have always been a huge part of my culture, especially at home. If my dad came back from work and you sat in his chair, you just knew you had to get up, so he could sit down because that was his chair. It was a sign of respect offering your chair to someone who was a lot older than you. Not only that, old chairs are really powerful objects that have many stories to tell – to have the opportunity to try and unravel those narratives is why I love what I do.

"A chair is an object that we all share together, whether we like it or not because we have to take a seat at some point during each day. This could be in a pubic space, church, bar or on public transport. We share ideas, feelings and emotions when we sit on a chair and that's the beauty of chairs – they have this unapologetic vulnerability about them, and we automatically trust a chair without even knowing, it's incredible.

"Chairs are conversation-starters and I like how they bring people together in the most simplest of ways. The most exciting part about my practice is being able to incorporate my heritage and tell stories through chairs, creating objects that make people smile but at the same time ask themselves the questions: can I sit on this chair? Is it functional?

"The stories that I tell through my work are based on Nigerian Parables, which are words of wisdom told to me by my parents when growing up as a child. Being able to create a chair that is meaningful, with a story is incredible."

Where do you source old furniture from? Any particular pieces that turned up in an unusual place?

"The chairs are sourced from charity shops, second-hand shops, skips – you name it, I'll find them anywhere. I mean, sometimes you might see me with two or three chairs in my hand, walking down East London trying to get on a bus because I’m always bumping into chairs! If you do see me with chairs and I look like I'm struggling, I'd really appreciate your help! Thanks in advance!"

The design industry can be tough. How do you ensure you stand out on the circuit?

"It can be tough but the only way to ensure you stand out on the circuit is to always tell your own story, do your research and don’t try and cut corners because you will only end up having to start again."

You've quickly built your reputation – what marketing tips and tricks can you share that have worked for you?

"The best marketing that has worked for me would have to be through Instagram. It's played a huge part in my career. It has exposed my work to so many people around the world. Some of the projects that I have done to date have come from Instagram so I would happily recommend it to anyone."

Is there anything that frustrates you about the design industry? What would you change if you could?

"Yes, there are hundreds of creatives who have such amazing ideas but struggle at writing proposals. If I had the funding I would love to set up a consultancy that helps creatives who struggle with writing proposals and supports them in making funding applications so that they have a better chance of having a successful application."

Next month, during London Design Festival, you'll be exhibiting a new collection of six chairs with a unique installation. Can you tell us more?

"I will be presenting a new collection of chairs through an installation at Clerkenwell London's Design Undefined. 'A Swimming Pool Of Dreams' is a presentation of my early childhood memories of going to church with my parents. One thing that stood out was how my church's congregation would go to the seaside and pray holding hands. The whole day was not only about praying but it was a celebration of faith, love and unity.

"The installation recreates my fond childhood memories of visiting Margate and praying for so many things that came to be true in my life and the lives of so many people that I care about. One thing that was special to me was that everyone shared their problems no matter what colour, race or background they were from.

"For Clerkenwell London I will be creating a Swimming Pool installation that will recreate those beautiful Margate memories, retelling those narratives of individuals visually in a thought-provoking way that gives the audience an insight into something special that has forever shaped my life, journey and the lives of so many others.

"There will be three swimming pool installations in the space and around them will be a collection of chairs. The chairs will highlight what people are hoping and praying for in the future. These pieces of furniture will be a combination of functional and non-functional furniture that will tell stories that hopefully visitors can resonate with.

"The patterns in 'A Swimming Pool Of Dreams' represent people's faces and highlights that they all have something to pray for but are still holding hands and sticking together. In the centre of the installation will be an eclectic and vibrant African Dutch Wax pool representing people's dreams, coming through in so many different colours, because they have all prayed for different things."

Finally, what three pieces of advice would you share to those wanting to break into furniture design?

"Tell your story the way you want because nobody can tell your story better than you. Don’t be afraid to share your work online. And, most importantly, be nice to people, it’s free!"