Words: Maria Rebsdorf Rostved. Images: Veerle Evens
Furniture designer Yinka Ilori recalls his childhood in London when his parents would go to church each Sunday wearing carefully selected colourful clothes. The garments’ were made using Dutch wax fabric or African Swiss lace, patterned textiles that are worn widely in West Africa, including Nigeria, from where his parents migrated before he was born.
“Growing up, seeing them wear their clothes and culture proudly made me want to be open about my cultural background as well. I wanted to express it and narrate my story,” Ilori explains.
The 29-year-old designer has, for the last couple of years, expressed this African pride through chair design. By fusing discarded chairs in a colourful upcycling process – using Nigerian parables as inspiration and West-African fabrics for the upholstery – he seeks to recall his heritage as well, merging his upbringing in London with his cultural background.
His work with chairs started in 2009 while he was enrolled in London Metropolitan University’s Product Design and Furniture degree. Inspired by furniture designer Martino Gamper, particularly known for his chair design, Ilori and a fellow student were given an assignment to fuse two very di erent discarded chairs. They created the piece “2 becomes 1”, which became a fairly iconic venture for him in his career. He described the outcome of this university assignment as being “both a sculptural chair and a chair-like sculpture”, and Ilori still works within this premise by using elements from both the design world and the art world.
This original clashing of chairs has translated into an ability to constantly traverse the traditional boundaries of art and design, allowing him to create furniture that goes further than mere form and function. Ilori still creates his pieces using the same “recipe” as the Gamper-inspired university assignment. He sources the chairs he uses for his work from vintage boutiques, ea markets or even from the side of the road. “When I spot a chair I see a new piece develop in my head, and during my process of upcycling things might go other than planned. But what is meant to be is meant to be,” he says.
Although this might seem like an arbitrary approach, a great deal of thought goes into the design and aesthetics, as well as the form and function of his furniture. Almost every chair is upholstered with the same type of textiles his parents wore to church – the Dutch wax fabric or African Swiss lace, textiles that bear social, political and religious connotations.
They can be humorous as well as thought-provoking and tell a story about both the wearer and the fabric itself. Ilori chooses the chairs he knows will work for him because he has an instant recognition of the narrative possibilities within them. The process of bringing out these stories seems more like a dialogue between materials and meaning, than a design process with sketching and planning, Nigerian parables, a source of inspiration for most of Ilori’s creations, are the conversation starter. As with the fabrics, the parables might seem merely humorous or quirky, but they’re interwoven with valuable meaning that is transferred to the designer’s equally humorous, but meaningful furniture.
The Oba chair was inspired by the parable Eni tí yóò dáso etù inú re` nií gbé, directly translated as: “Whoever plans acquiring an expensive clothe will keep it to himself”. But it also means “Keep your lofty dreams to yourself”. The name of the chair refers to the fact that it is a seat for a king, accentuated by the use of the upholstering fabric, called aso-oke, which is associated with Ilori’s mother’s home state, Ondo, and is used for weddings and royalty. The single, brightly painted yellow leg stands out from the otherwise subtle upcycling of this retro chair, highlighting the one leg’s superiority over the others and emphasising the role of the chair as a throne.
The Oba chair is from the Parable Chair Collection of 2013, one of several collections the young designer has created. Only a year after his 2009 graduation from London Metropolitan University, he created his own design brand called Yinka Ilori, and has exhibited all over the world, from New York, London and Lagos to Basel and Copenhagen.
Although the chairs are often received as a form of art and sculpture, Ilori’s work is continuously being commissioned for the interior decoration of restaurants or lounging areas in galleries, which he welcomes happily. “As a designer you want to make something that is beautiful but also accommodating,” he says. “And as much as I enjoy seeing people interacting with my work, and using it as furniture, I also want to experience a person’s instant physical reaction, to watch their body language when using a chair that might not be comfortable or even suited for seating.”
This dialogue between his cultural background, art and design, as well as the interaction between objects and people, are the pinnacle point for Ilori’s work. And while his furniture has been described as humorous, provocative and fun, the colourful chairs are equally as thought-provoking as the West African fabrics and the Nigerian parables. Beneath the vibrant surface lie layers of meaning, telling stories of both the maker and the chairs.