London-based designer Yinka Ilori draws on his British and Nigerian heritage to tell new stories in contemporary design. He studied furniture and product design at the London Metropolitan University and started designing and manufacturing upcycling furniture in 2011. He’s also now working on a larger scale, with recent installations like Happy Street in Nine Elms, The Color Palace in Dulwich Picture Gallery, and Get Up Stand Up in Somerset House, and on a smaller scale, having developed a range of dishes and dishes Home accessories. We met him to learn more about his groundbreaking If Chairs Could Talk collection, the pieces of which have been exhibited at the Vitra Museum in Switzerland, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in the UK.
Tell me a little about your childhood upbringing and your background, how you first got interested in creativity, design and sustainability.
As a toddler, I loved playing with bikes, cars, and tricycles – they brought me joy and allowed me to imagine or dream. I think we often forget that the first designed objects we come in contact with are all about playing. So that was my first entry. In college, I studied design technology and fine arts. I wasn’t very good at fine arts so I went more into design and technology and then got a degree in product design and furniture from the London Met University and then I really started looking at design as a career. Sustainability is something I’ve always seen around me, for example when I’ve gone to Nigeria and seen people and communities find the everyday objects they find around them, like breeze blocks, tires or strange pieces of wood, in seating , Convert benches or to create facades.
How would you describe if chairs could talk?
If Chairs Could Talk is a collection I produced for a concept store on King’s Road in London. It’s a big, shiny, finished room – and that’s why I was interested in taking items off the street – that were thrown away or thrown away and damaged – and put them in a public space. There was a feeling of taking the undesirable and giving it a new life. People reacted very positively and I was fascinated by the number of times we identify with or respect something new and polished and yet it was the same chairs that people had passed by and that were ignored on the street.
What inspired this project?
Those chairs that were out on the street that didn’t care about people were transformed and suddenly people wanted to praise them and say, “Wow, I love them”. It was amazing – and I think that’s how we treat other people sometimes. So each chair told the story of someone I grew up with. The chairs each had names like A Trapped Star, Backbone and A Helping Hand, which reflected the characters of these people. Some of them became famous actors or successful lawyers, others unfortunately became delinquents, although I knew them to be intelligent, kind people. There is a Nigerian parable that says, “No matter how long a giraffe’s neck is, it still cannot see the future.” So the message from these chairs was that we shouldn’t prejudice people.
What waste (and other) materials do you use, how did you choose those particular materials and how do you source them?
The If Chairs Could Talk collection is made up of discarded and broken wooden chairs that I found on the streets of London. I would be on the top deck of the bus and discover a chair in a container or be about to be thrown away and I would get off the bus, take the chair, and get back on with my new fellow passenger! My mom was quite frustrated with the number of broken chairs that filled my room and eventually spilled over into other rooms in the house! She never fully understood my fascination, but chairs are really powerful objects. When you sit on a throne, you have instant status. If I’ve given you a low chair and have had a high chair, people will see me as superior just because I’m in the higher chair. My father’s chair at home was sacred – only he could sit on it. As children, we argued who had what space in the car. The idea of using chairs was to understand that such a simple object can instantly demand status and create hierarchies. And I would think about how I could take these objects and give them a second life, upcycle them and give them a new narrative.
When did you first become interested in using waste as a raw material and what motivated this decision?
It was probably in Nigeria. There every object can have an afterlife and can be reused in a really sustainable and environmentally friendly way. My first insight into how I could apply this to my own practice was when my tutor Jane Atfield presented us with a letter entitled Our Chair, which was inspired by Martino Gamper’s 100 chairs in 100 days. The task was to find two chairs that are unloved or thrown away and to recycle them into a new piece of furniture to give them a new narrative.
What processes do the materials have to go through to become the finished product?
The creative process is a pretty organic process for me. I am going to bring this broken chair from its surroundings into the studio – and even if I walk into my studio with this chair, I am already breaking the chair in my head trying to figure out what it might look like and what kind of narrative could it share? Was it made in another country – is it an immigrant to the UK? Could its backrest be used as a leg? Is there a parable I remember that could help me tell its story? And when I’m back in the studio, I take it apart and lay it on the floor, almost like a flat-pack piece of furniture, and try to find a new use for each component. It’s a very different process than the one I learned at university.
What happens to these products at the end of their life? Can they go back to the circular economy?
Yes you can. I work at the intersection of art and design and hope that they will become heirlooms and be passed down through generations. I want them to be like jewelry that you can treasure and keep for a long time. However, you can add more layers and add even more attachments – recreate it and add it to its story.
How did you feel when you first saw the conversion of waste material to product / prototype?
I think I would have to go back to that first project at London Metropolitan University for Jane Atfield. I made a strange-looking, sculptural chair out of two cafe chairs. It was this really slim, silhouetted green chair, and it wasn’t really functional. But I just thought, “Wow, I made this piece of furniture with these objects.” And I don’t think that this shape would ever have come about without these two objects from which it was made. Even now, when I’m doing serial work, this idea sticks with me.
How did people react to the project?
The people really reacted incredibly. I think they can all resonate with and connect with the fact that not only am I creating design objects that might also be works of art, but also trying to educate people about upcycling and sustainability – and the fact that you shouldn’t just throwing things away, maybe thinking about repairing or redefining something instead.
How do you think opinions on waste as a raw material are changing?
I think I have a responsibility to make sure I’m very aware of the things I do in design – thinking about the afterlife of this project. What is the lifespan of this project? And can it be passed on? Where would it go? How would it be used? And now I’m trying to incorporate that idea of legacy into my contracts. But the next generation is over this stuff. I am so impressed with how well informed children are about climate change. I think he’s changing – for the better.
What does the future hold for you in terms of waste as a raw material?
It is a long way. Sustainable or recycled materials are still quite expensive – and it can be difficult to convince customers to spend money on them – but that’s changing. I am hopefull. I think we’re having the right conversations and more and more people are doing the right thing.