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Getting To Know Yinka Ilori, The Designer Bringing Joy To London

If you’re a London-dweller, it’s likely you’ve already heard about artist and designer Yinka Ilori, and you may well have stumbled upon his designs across the city. Since launching his studio in 2017, he’s taken over Dulwich Picture Gallery with The Colour Palace; featured in Somerset House’s Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibition; launched the Instagram-famous Happy Street installation in Battersea and brought hope to Harrow with his Love Always Wins mural. He plays with colour, pattern and space in distinctive ways to tell stories and uplift us – but who is the man behind the murals?

We caught up with Yinka about his creative portfolio, the power of Instagram as a platform for designers, the allure of London and how art can (and should) bring people together in unexpected ways.

Photo by Andy Stagg

Your creative portfolio embodies everything from recognisable murals across London to eclectic homeware. Can you tell us how you first got into design?

I studied furniture and product design, and when I finished uni, I interned for a designer called Lee Broom in East London. The Prince’s Trust then gave me a loan to start my own business, and I produced my first collection in my family home in Archway, North London. I decided that I wanted to get my work out there, and the year after, I started working on my first exhibition.

At the time, I was new to Instagram, and a friend of mine (who I really need to thank again) urged me to use it as a platform for sharing my work. I wasn’t keen as I didn’t like social media, but eventually, I tried it and my following grew massively from there.

How would you describe your work?

My work is joyful and unapologetic. It’s also very much about storytelling – I want it to get people talking.

The Colour Palace, Dulwich Gallery, Photo by Adam Scott

Photo by Andrew Meredith

Photo by Adam Scott

Your designs have such an uplifting, distinctive aesthetic - how do you want people to feel when they pass your murals in London?

Joyful and empowered. My latest installation says, ‘if you can dream, then anything is possible.’ We can all relate to this, and in the past year, I felt we all needed that sense of hope. I want people to find optimism in my work and be able to share that feeling with others.

“I want people to find optimism in my work and be able to share that feeling with others.”

Happy Street, Battersea, Photo by Luke O’Donovan

Where do the ideas for these come from initially?

Everything, from people I come across to the places I’ve visited. One of my biggest sources of inspiration is my Nigerian heritage, as well as all the other families I was influenced by growing up. I got to know people from a variety of cultures and we all shared a community, which led to mutual respect. That was the joy of growing up in North London. I went to many parties hosted by my family and friends, so I’ve got an archive of stories that live in my head (and heart) from that period. I like to relive celebratory moments with people that have shaped me and express them in my work.

Happy Street, Battersea, Photo by Luke O’Donovan

“I like to relive celebratory moments with people that have shaped me and express them in my work.”

As someone who lives in London, what do you love most about the city?

I love the people I get to meet. My work is all about collaboration, not just with other practices but other communities too. We can share a space together in London, and it allows me to have conversations about other parts of the world. I like being able to go to Peckham, which is known to some as ‘mini-Lagos’ and then to Brick Lane, where there’s a huge Asian community. To be accepted by other cultures is very special and I think that’s what makes London so unique.

How have the experiences of the last year changed the way you work?

I always felt that we had to be in the office or in the studio to produce strong work. However, lockdown was one of our busiest periods, and we have proved otherwise. Most of my team now work from home, and everyone has a good work/life balance, which is so important. Especially as a creative, that space can be crucial. We’ve produced a new homeware collection, and I’ve managed to do the things I didn’t have the time to focus on before.

Types Of Happiness

Types Of Happiness

Photo by Andrew Meredith

Who else’s art/design work do you admire?

I love Yayoi Kusama and all of her work. There’s also an artist called Lakwena, whose murals you may have seen around London, who I really admire. Both artists push boundaries in different ways, and their work can be fun too.

How can art bring people together from your experience?

I think people often underestimate the power of art and what it can do for people. I love creating art in public spaces because everyone can access it and interact with it – there’s no hierarchy. I want my murals to bring people together from all backgrounds. No matter where you’re from or how much money you have, you should be able to enjoy art and experience the emotions it can create. Art has the power to make you feel joyful, or it can make you want to cry, and we should all be able to feel those things.

I love creating art in public spaces because everyone can access it and interact with it - there’s no hierarchy.

I can imagine a lot of people pass your work throughout the day and feel the urge to stop and take a moment. That could spark a conversation between two people who may have never crossed paths or spoken otherwise - that must feel special for you?

Exactly and art should do that. I want it to be more inclusive, start discussions and make people think.

Estate Playground shot by Guy Bell

Do people contact you on Instagram once they’ve spotted your work?

Yes, which is another reason why I love Instagram. It’s great to keep the conversations open with those who discover my work. I often get messages saying my installations have inspired people and brought positivity, which is lovely to hear. It can go either way though!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

It sounds cliché, but it’s simple and effective advice; just be yourself. Don’t try and dilute your story or what you’re trying to say – nobody can tell your story better than you.

“Don’t try and dilute your story or what you’re trying to say - nobody can tell your story better than you.”

Get Up Stand Up Now, Somerset House, Photo by Andy Stagg

Photo by Andy Stagg

Does music influence you personally and creatively?

Definitely. I grew up in a traditional Nigerian household and music was a big part of our lives – whether we were celebrating or we felt down. My parents left Nigeria to come to the UK and I think all they had left were memories of their distant family members. Music offers escapism and it allows us to remember and dream – it can transport you home in that sense.

Sound is important at my studio too. I try to introduce my teams to new music, and they do the same for me. We play a selection of afrobeats, hip hop, and R&B – it’s a real eclectic mix, and we take turns DJing whilst we work. Music is universal and it’s something we can all appreciate.

“Music offers escapism and it allows us to remember and dream - it can transport you home in that sense.”

What songs and sounds are you loving at the moment?

A lot of great music has been released lately – Burna Boy and Wizkid spring to mind. I’ve been loving a lot of older, timeless sounds too – the type of music that doesn’t age.

What's next for you? What are you working on at the moment?

We’re working on a playground and the main focus will be on more public installations. There will also be some cool collaborations to look out for, so there’s a lot of exciting things on the horizon.

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