Yinka Ilori on colour and ‘reloving’ furniture

Hot from winning a competition to design the Dulwich Pavilion for 2019, we speak to the designer about telling the story of his Nigerian heritage through furniture, and how he plans to bring his signature colourful style to bigger architectural projects

Yinka Ilori fell into furniture design by accident. Growing up in a traditional Nigerian household on a council estate in Essex Road, North London, Ilori and his three siblings were expected to go into more conventional careers like law or engineering. “I was told I was going to be a civil engineer and it kind of stuck with me,” he says. “I went to enrol on a taster course for civil engineering at a local university – so I was that close to going on to do that degree – came out and was like ‘Mum and dad, I don’t think this is for me’. I couldn’t see myself wearing a hard hat and a high vis jacket being on a construction site. That’s not me.”

What Ilori didn’t know at the time was that his strict Nigerian upbringing would go on to have a huge influence on his creative approach and cement his lifelong love of colour. Rather than getting caught up in the drug dealing and gang culture that was fairly commonplace on his estate at the time, Ilori’s teenage years were taken up by the traditional parties held by London’s Nigerian community to celebrate everything from weddings to coronations. “[My family] always used to wear these Nigerian prints that my mum bought from Dalston,” says Ilori. “I saw how much [my parents] cherished and loved being around people who spoke the same language as them because they all shared this same value, and the fabrics would tell stories about where they’d come from.”