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  • Yinka Ilori, Restoration station workshop. Photo: Dan Weill

Seats of learning

Designer Yinka Ilori on why he’s recreating his childhood playground in the lobby of a London hotel  

You’re working on a giant playground for London Design Festival. How did that come about?

It’s a commission from citizenM, a hotel in Shoreditch. I wanted to look at my upbringing in north London. I grew up on the Marquess Estate in Islington.
It’s kind of a rough area; there were a lot of gangs. But what was nice about that estate was you had every nationality and we were all like one family.

Render of Estate Playground by Yinka Ilori x citizenM

So the playground represents that community?

Yeah. There was this communal playground and everyone played there. White, black, rich, poor. I wanted to recreate that, the idea of people coming together to enjoy themselves.

What was it like as a place?

It was colourful, but the council didn’t take much care of it. Gangs in the area would damage things, so they sort of gave up on the estate. But everyone would bring their own objects from their gardens to the communal areas, so I’m trying to recreate some of those things. There’s a Nigerian parable my parents used to say: ‘People are your clothes.’ It was the people that made the playground colourful and fun.

You’re also doing upcycling workshops during the festival.

Yeah, with Restoration Station, which works with people in recovery. It’s a great project. I’ve got friends who have been through a tough time, and people haven’t given them a second chance. I think if someone is willing to make amends, and start a new chapter, it’s important not to look down on them.

A lot of your projects are about that, giving furniture a kind of new life.

Wherever I go, I’ll see a chair that’s been thrown away, and all it needs is a screwdriver to fix it. I’m trying to encourage people to recycle and reuse what they have. We can live better lives and breathe fresher air... People just need a bit of education and inspiration.

What drew you to furniture design?

My parents wanted me to be a civil engineer. I went to an induction and I remember leaving, thinking: ‘This isn’t me.’ So I started a foundation in art and design, doing photography, fine art, all sorts. I was enjoying model-making and making furniture so I ended up doing a degree in furniture and product design.

You often tell stories through the objects you make. How did that start?

My course tutor Jane Atfield gave us a brief, to find two odd chairs and use all the components from them to make a new object. I loved that the chairs would have belonged to two different people, from different backgrounds, but I got to tell a new story. I started hoarding chairs from dustbins, charity shops, anywhere really. We’d been looking at Martino Gamper’s project, 100 Chairs in 100 Days. I was obsessed; he’s an incredible artist.

Had design interested you growing up?

My first love has always been painting. I had two teachers who were really pivotal for me, and pushed me to get into art and design. I loved Basquiat, Picasso, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dalí. Product and furniture design came later. I remember I fell in love with Ercol furniture and Ray and Charles Eames’s stuff. It was like: ‘Wow! Chairs are amazing!’

Ercol Originals stacking chair

Are there any artists or designers you’d love to work with in the future?

Morag Myerscough. I think she’s brilliant. She makes these amazing large-scale installations. Maybe I could do the tables and chairs.

You often link your experiences of dual cultural and national identity with your work as a designer.

Yeah. I love being British and being Nigerian. My parents were so passionate about being Nigerian, and African. My Mum would spend hours doing her head tie and ironing her clothes before church. I loved that it was this massive occasion, almost a kind of performance. I couldn’t just go to the shop in traditional Nigerian clothes, I was scared I’d get laughed at, but they didn’t care. They actually loved the attention, being asked questions.

Is it the same for you with your chairs?

Chairs are always conversation starters. We think on them, we cry on them, we dance with them. Chairs were a big part of my life at home, too. Dad had his chair, I had mine.

Estate Playground, citizenM Shoreditch, London EC2A 3ET, 16 to 24 September 


100 chairs in 100 Days, Martino Gamper, installed at 5 Cromwell Place, London, October 2007. Photo: Photo Courtesy of the artist and Nilufar Gallery