Circular Podcast with Yinka Ilori - Katie Treggiden Skip to content

Circular Podcast with Yinka Ilori

In the seventh episode of Series 01, Katie Treggiden chats to London-based designer Yinka Ilori about his early exposure to reuse and upcycling in Nigeria, his penchant for collecting discarded chairs off the street and bringing them home on the bus, the first time he created a collection he could truly see himself in, his most meaningful collaboration to date, and why he now has legacy and reuse written into his contract.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m Katie Treggiden and this is Circular, a podcast exploring the intersection of craft, design, and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the thinkers, doers and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear take make waste model of production and consumption, and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about waste.

Yinka Ilori 

I worked with a friend of mine who also at the time was studying the furniture degree that we were doing, called Ronald. And he went, he went to go and choose a chair. And I bought a chair, but my chair was from someone that I’d known really well. But you know, he was a bit of a naughty boy. So I think what was interesting about that chair was that, that chair had seen and had been experienced and immersed in so many, sort of, I don’t know, like, illegal activities. So that was interesting for me that chair, in that context. And then this other guy, you know, my friend, Ronald, who worked in a pub, and you know, he got the chair from a pub. And, you know, again, a pub is a different environment. So these two chairs, that had been in sort of different worlds, coming together to form a new identity, blew my mind away.

Katie Treggiden 

I first met Yinka Ilori at Restoration Station in London’s Shoreditch, where he had worked with people in recovery from addiction to create a collection of joyful, colourful, and optimistic furniture. Yinka is a London based artist who specialises in storytelling by fusing his British and Nigerian heritage to create new narratives in contemporary design. He began his practice in 2011, upcycling vintage furniture, inspired by traditional Nigerian parables, and West African fabrics that surrounded him as a child. Humorous, provocative and fun, each piece he creates tells a story, bringing Nigerian verbal traditions into playful conversation with contemporary design. He established his eponymous studio in 2017, following a successful pitch to transform the Thassely Road bridge, and now employs a team of colour obsessed architects and designers with whom he has taken on increasingly large scale architectural and interior design projects. The studio continues to experiment with the relationship between form and function, with an output that sits between traditional divisions of art and design. To borrow a phrase from our mutual friend Sabine Zetteler, he is also one of my favourite humans. Tell me a little bit about your childhood, and what role both creativity and the idea of waste or reuse played when you were growing up?

Yinka Ilori 

So I grew up in a big council estate – I’m in North London. My parents, you know, were born and raised in Nigeria. So, you know, from a young age, I was, you know, like, sort of, introduced to so much culture and identity in an area that was in a working class kind of environment, so we had to make the best of what we had. So, you know, we weren’t really like we weren’t buying Nike trainers every week, or every month, it was, you know, if you had a pair of trainers, you had to make sure they lasted you for at least, you know, like, four or five months, at least, like half of the term. So clothes that we wore, we had to make sure we sort of reuse and recycle and, and just make sure this would last longer. I remember my mom and dad actually, would always buy us, I’m sure every parent, maybe our parents did this, they would probably buy us like clothes that were sort of two sizes bigger than us. So we would still wear it from like, I don’t know, from year 7 to year 9. And it worked really well. But I think when I went to Nigeria, for the first time, that was the first time I sort of was aware of like sustainability and the idea of like, recycling and sort of, you know, using objects that are around you, to form, you know, like objects in your home or, you know, objects form the seating or shelving, and that kind of thing. So that was my kind of….it was around, like 11 or 12 years old.

Katie Treggiden 

And when you say using objects, you mean, using objects for a purpose that they weren’t necessarily intended for?

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, exactly. So people will maybe use like say, like concrete blocks as like building, building like a seating. Or maybe people would sort of use, I don’t know, like old fabrics, that they used to sort of wear as upholstery. So just the idea of old tyres, like, you know, you’d see children sort of using like old tyres that, you know, that you might see in like the village or my parent’s village, and they use them as forms of play, or forms of seating. So, I was interested in sort of seeing, like how, you know, people were able to sort of use everyday objects around them, and sort of recycle them to use them, you know, as part of that, you know, as design objects, you know.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah and that idea of kind of adaptive reuse, I think is fascinating. You’ve said that in your work, you aim to tell your parent’s stories. Tell me a little bit about your parents and your grandparents because you talk about them a lot too?

Yinka Ilori 

I do. Yeah. I think for me, when it comes to my parents, I think they grew up in Nigeria came to the UK, they’ve been here for like, nearly over 30 years. So I think one of the things I’ve always sort of found, like fascinating, and also, like, there was also a bit of jealousy for my parents. They were born in Nigeria, so they had so much kind of culture and that they, you know, they would, they were always telling us about, and I never could reconnect with those stories, because I wasn’t, I didn’t grow up in Nigeria, but it always sounded so special. So, I don’t know, just so really meaningful and powerful. And sometimes, when someone’s telling you a story, it’s hard for you to kind of relive that story unless you experienced it. So I think for me, like, I saw my parents, you know, like, where, you know, Swiss Voile Lace and Dutch rights prints and you know, like, fabrics, you know, from Nigeria, on a day-to-day basis. And, you know, they would wear it in, like, in spaces that weren’t predominantly, you know, like, full of Nigerian or African people. So, for me, that showed how proud they were and how unapologetic they were of their culture, which I think for me was, like, so powerful, you know, as a, as a young kid to see. So when you sort of when you’re sort of like, when you experienced that type of power and love of your culture, you know, you want to, you want to emulate that, you know, and you want to understand it more and understand, like, what is it that they love so much. And it made sense to me, you know, like, you know, people gave them respect when they wore, you know, their traditional, you know, Nigerian attire, because it was, who they were and what they represented. So people were interested and people were also, you know, they wanted to ask questions, you know, maybe some people did laugh and thought, like, why are they wearing that head tie, why are they wearing those really crazy, colourful colours, but when people spoke to them, and understood why and like, who and what they were, and why they were wearing those colours, I think people gave them respect, and I think that’s the power of colour and identity and, and culture, you know, people, it does give, it gives you respect, and I think that’s one of the things I think I wanted to try to, you know, bring through into my work. Yeah,

Katie Treggiden 

That’s wonderful. And I love the things we learn from watching our parents, rather than necessarily the things they tell us to do. You know, there’s a sort of, there’s a, there are embodied behaviours I think, that we we learn from our families in that way.

Yinka Ilori 

Yes, I totally agree. I think, you know, we, I grew up in a really sort of strict Nigerian household. So we were told, you know, taught, you know, sort of cultural values, like, really early on, from when we were, like, born, and, and that was that sort of, you know, went down from respecting your eldest and, you know, going to the church, and, you know, like, getting an education. And then also, you know, like, not being in trouble with the police and not, you know, dealing with the wrong things that, you know, like, that was around us, because, you know, in our environment, in my environment, there weren’t a lot of positive role models, you know. My role models were my, you know, my siblings, and my parents, and, you know, few family, friends and cousins. But, you know, when you sort of leave home and go to school, you know, you’re like, you experienced a different world, when you’re on that walk to school, and on the way back, you know, because at home, you’re kind of, you’re kind of protected, and you’re safe. But when you go out into the real world, you know, it’s like, it’s not as safe as when you’re at home, you know, so, yeah.

Katie Treggiden 

And how did that show up, that sense of, kind of, the different influences outside of the home?

Yinka Ilori 

It showed up in sort of, in different ways, I think, when you go, you know, I went to an all boys school. So, you know, you see that most of your peers sort of end up in jail or end up, you know, sort of selling drugs or just doing, you know, the things that you know, things that their sort of parents didn’t imagined their kids would be doing or be involved in, when they left, you know, their, their country, their hometown. So I think my parent’s idea for us was to be successful, you know, get an education and not, you know, not end up, you know, them going to see us in a prison cell or see us, you know, either in the  wrong places, because those things were so easy and accessible in the state we grew up in. So I always feel like, I’m really grateful for my parents and sort of how strict they were. Because, you know, it’s so easy for me to sort of be a different person. But you know, there are also people in my school who were so successful, who, you know, were actors and, you know, have played in like, huge, you know, like, acted in huge British films that, you know, you may have seen or your friends might have seen, so, there was a lot of talent in my school, but you know, there was also, you know, some people who didn’t have that passion and dream. So, I remember in my early sort of years of, of secondary school. Uh, you know, when you’re young, you want to sort of, you know, you’re a bit of a, you know, you’re a bit cheeky and a bit sort of, you know, naughty, and I thought when I got to Year 8, I was like, oh, like, I need to make sure like, you know, I get my education. Make sure I’d be someone and not let my parents down because they’ve, you know, sacrificed everything for us – leaving their parents, and cousins, and families, and houses, and good jobs, to give us a different narrative and different, you know, different opportunity.

Katie Treggiden 

And I guess being such strong role models, in terms of kind of celebrating their culture must have been really important as well?

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, totally. It was massive for them because I think for them is that, you know, you know, the thing is that about having two cultures that you, can you can, you’re born here, so automatically you’re British. You know, if you’re sort of born in Nigeria, it’s always very different because you’re going to be a Nigerian citizen. So I have two passports, I have a British and also Nigerian passport. So I have the best of both worlds. But for me, it was very important to never forget, you know, like my Nigerian roots and I make sure I visit Nigeria every year, or maybe like four times a year. And, you know, for me, you know, as a, you know, as a, as a kid growing up as well, it’s really hard to celebrate both of those cultures. It may be harder to celebrate my Nigerian culture, because when you’re presented by the media with so much negativity, from, you know, like, not only Nigeria, but also presented in the media, like negativity from other parts of West Africa, or like, or the continent, you know, that’s all you’re seeing is, I don’t know, like, not positive news. So you automatically you have this narrative in your head, that you’re presented with but when I went there, for the first time, I was just like, this is incredible. Like, I feel like I’ve missed out on so much. And sometimes… so the reason why, you know, for me, I try to sort of bring in my heritage is that I feel like I’ve missed out on so much, you know, and that’s to do with like, what we know, the media sort of presented, but and also like, it’s your parents obviously telling you like how like, beautiful your culture is. And sometimes you sometimes just feel like, ‘Oh, your parents are just saying that,’ because you won’t experience it yourself. And your parents will always tell you something different from what, I don’t know. But I felt like I had to go there myself to see it. See the real truth. And I was just blown away. I was like, wow, like, how do I celebrate my culture that I feel like I’ve missed out on for so like, for, you know, like, some of my teenage years? And how do I celebrate it. And that was the only way I could do that, was to tell narratives, based on things my parents told me. And also, just purely by how much colour and this power of storytelling, and how do I bring my work?

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, you mentioned that this idea of kind of adaptive reuse was something you saw for the first time, the first time you visited Nigeria. You studied furniture design at London Met in the 2000s, how much was sustainability and reuse, and those sort of ideas on the agenda there?

Yinka Ilori 

if I’m honest with you, it wasn’t that big on the agenda then. I don’t know why that is. I think, you know, obviously, we’re having a lot more of these conversations around sustainability and, you know, upcycling, and you know, and everyone’s a lot more aware now, but when I was doing my degree, that wasn’t a conversation we had at all. We were producing, you know, like, different types of ….we’re working with resin and, you know, using different sorts of materials that weren’t environmentally friendly. So that wasn’t, I wasn’t a conscious designer. I didn’t think then at all. But if I’m honest with you, I always, you know, always made reference Martino Gamper, and I think that was the first time I, you know, was sort of questioning what I was designing and also understanding the impact and power of sustainability and recycling.

Katie Treggiden 

Yes. So tell me about the Martino Gamper project that inspired you and what it was specifically that caught your imagination?

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, that was a really powerful project. I mean, it was set by my tutor who’s called Jane Atfield. So Jane Atfield was also a practising designer, not sure if she’s still designing now, but at the time, she had produced this chair, which is in the V&A, if you Google Jane Atfield chair V&A she produced this recycled, this sort of plastic recycled chair, that was incredible. I think maybe one of first designers do, actually. And then she set us a brief that was called Our Chair. And on the brief, you know, I’ve still got the brief at home actually, because I, I just thought this one, I’m probably going to frame up, because it really did change and sort of did, you know, helped me in my career, and gave me my career, that brief. And on the brief was Martino Gamper’s project called ‘100 Chairs in a 100 Days.’ So you know, the brief was to, you know, go and find the two objects, and you have to use redesign object, both objects, but you had to use every component in these chairs, to create a new narrative and a new….and give it any function. At the time, I thought, How the hell am I going to do that? You know, I thought, This is impossible. But I worked with a friend of mine, who was also at the time was studying the furniture degree that we were doing called Ronald. And he went, he went to go and choose a chair, and I bought a chair. But my chair was from someone, that I’d known really well. You know, he was a bit of a naughty boy. And so I think what was interesting about that chair was that that chair, had seen and had been experienced and immersed in so many sort of, I don’t know, like, illegal activities. So that was interesting, in that context, and then this other guy, you know, my friend, Ronald, who worked in a pub, and you know, he got the chair from a pub. And, you know, again, a pub is also in a different environment. So these two chairs, that had been in sort of different worlds, coming together to form a new identity, blew my mind away. I was like, you know, that’s crazy that you know, two objects, and you can sort of recreate a new narrative and tell new stories and the power about that is that you know, these stories can be shared or cannot or maybe you may not want to share them. So that was the first time I sort of thought of chairs as much more than chairs but also saw them as like, really powerful objects that can, I don’t know, really kind of, like have so much power and depth, you know, in society, but also in a public space, whether it’s in a gallery, or an exhibition environment. And it also allows users to experience an object in a very different way than an object has been sort of mass produced on, I don’t know, 100, or maybe more… a 1000 times. Then it’s kind of a one off piece that’s been, you know, like sourced from a place that you may or may not ever kind of go to or ever experience. But I’ll give you an opportunity to, to kind of experience a chair in a sort of different context.

Katie Treggiden 

I have to say, I think that book was the first design book I ever bought, so I’m with you on the power of Martino Gamper and his 100 chairs. So you still work with sort of discarded and upcycled chairs. My question is, where do you find them? And where do you store them all?

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah it’s a good question. Well, when I was starting out, I started with sort of like, like 3 chairs. That was probably the first kind of collection that I produced and did in my garden. And I remember at a time when I was starting out, I had no studio, I was sort of working in my backgarden. And I remember sort of going around London, just picking up chairs, anyway, in anywhere in London, on the bus. So I would see I’ll be on a bus, let’s say the bus 43 or the bus, because I used to live in Angel, Islington at the time, I’ll be on a bus – 38. And I’ll probably go through like, like Angel to sort of Holborn. And you would just see chairs, and like really unusual places, in corners, like by a skip. I would get off the bus and pick up the chair and take it and put it into kind of the buggy area where the parents had to sort of sit with their children. I remember getting some like really uncomfortable looks from people thinking, what is this guy doing? Why has he got chairs in his hands and blah, blah, blah. But I was obsessed with chairs, I remember my parents were like, getting quite angry with me and frustrated with the amount of chairs that I had. So yeah, but they never understood that kind of love I had for for furniture, but what I would do is basically just sort of go around London collecting old bits of furniture, and just taking them into my shed at home or in my bedroom, which was really small. So I just, I just had enough space to sleep on my bed.

Katie Treggiden 

I’ve got this lovely image of you, kind of barely enough space to sleep because your space is piled up with chairs. And tell me what process they go through to turn into your collections. What do you do to them to turn them from these sort of discarded chairs to the beautiful, colourful collections that you make with them?

Yinka Ilori 

Sure, yeah, so my process is probably very different from like how we were taught in school. And when I went to university, we would sort of, we’re always taught to sort of sketch an idea and sort of like, the process, like based on the sketch, but my way of working is changed when, especially when I work with upcycled furniture, and the objects that I find. My process starts with sort of like finding these two bits of furniture. And then what I do is I sort of deconstruct the chair in my head. So as I’m walking into the studio, as I’m in the studio, I’m already sort of like dismantling the chair. Imagine like, you’re designing a piece of furniture and you have, you have this kind of isometric view, that’s exploded of all the kind of components, I don’t know if you can sort of visualise it, but that’s how I work, how my head works. And I’m sort of breaking the legs, and the back, and everything else into like intersections. So when I do that, then I go back to paper, and then I go back to sort of 3d modelling, and then start to design it. But I always try to avoid sketching any kind of concept because I feel like if I sketch the idea, I always feel like, I put pressure on myself and feel like, Okay, that’s what you’ve produced as a sketch, you have to design and make it now. Whereas if I’m making mistakes as I go, I always thought the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve made mistakes along my way and in my career, in my designs, and they have been the most beautiful things that have come out of, of my process – the mistakes. So I think, yeah, my process is basically sort of coming into the studio and sort of drawing it in my head, and then whatever sort of I’ve of drawn in my mind, in my head, is what I tried to sort of like create and if I make mistakes along the way, and that’s fine. So that’s the first process and second process is trying to understand the narrative and what kind of parable that I would like to sort of tell. So it kind of works hand in hand with the parable, the parable might be about love or identity, or about, you know, like jealousy and about greed. And it’s all to do with my upbringing inherited and these are things my parents told us when we were kids, these Nigerian parables, and so it sort of works hand in hand together. I think I’d probably start off with the parable first of all, and then head into the construction process of what I want to say in this piece. And then the fabric comes in and then the colours come in. So it’s, it’s all like a kind of like…imagine making like Jollof rice. And then you’ve got the rice, you’ve got the seasoning, you’ve got the Maggi sauce, you’ve got the scotch bonnets and then you mix the pot. So that’s what it’s, that’s what it’s like. That is a good descriptor, that is a good comparison. It’s like making Jollof rice.

Katie Treggiden 

I like that analogy. After the break, Yinka tells me why a charity collaboration with Restoration Station is the most meaningful project he’s ever worked on, how his colour palace was repurposed into planter kits for schoolchildren, and why he now has reuse and legacy written into his contract.

Katie Treggiden 

I might have mentioned I’ve got a new book coming out. Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure published by Ludion, is available to pre order on Amazon now, and in local bookshops from 8th October.

Katie Treggiden 

So tell me about your ‘If Chairs Could Talk’ project, specifically.

Yinka Ilori 

I did that collection in 2015. And I remember at the time, I was a little bit frustrated with the industry and just because no one I felt at the time really got what I was trying to do. And I remember sort of doing my sort of graduate show and design. And I thought oh, this is not really me, here is it, I don’t really see Yinka in these pieces. I don’t really see my culture in these pieces. And I always felt like I was trying to design for a particular kind of audience. And I felt that wasn’t the right way of designing. So I wanted my work to be a bit more meaningful. I, you know, I saw my work as yes, furniture but I also saw my work as a pieces of art as well. And there was that kind of cross between the two. So that collection in 2015 was a point in my career and life where I felt Okay, if no one gets this collection, and it doesn’t do what I want it to do, then I might probably stop designing and try and find an option B. And that was where I was at the time in 2015. So at the time, I was working in Jigsaw, and you know, working in retail and the Shop at Bluebird, as you know, I don’t know, anyway, they’re sort of like one company. So they offered me an opportunity to kind of deal with an exhibition during LDF in their concept store in Chelsea, on the Kings Road. So, I wanted to tell a narrative based on people that I grew up with, and the parable behind that collection was called, ‘No matter how long the neck of a giraffe is, it still can’t see the future.’ And I remember, you know, like, we grew up in a society where people were constantly judging people when having misconceptions of people, based on either their insecurities, or what people have told them about someone, so you automatically have this, you know, idea of someone, ‘Oh, you know, he’s a burglar or he’s a, this or that, or she’s or that,’ you know, and we all do it, you know, like, everyone does it subconsciously. But, you know, it’s just kind of like, just something that we will do. And I think is is terribly wrong. And I think with this collection, I wanted to basically design a collection of five pieces – that was chairs based on five people that I grew up with, and tell their story. And these are based on real life people who were friends of mine. And some of these people went on to be actors and lawyers, and some people went into, you know, into jail and, and that’s been their life since school, they’ve been in and out of, you know, the of the kind of, you know, the police system, and because they haven’t really got anything else to sort of look forward to, and, you know, they’ve, they’ve sort of lost that hope, you know, hope in society. So I wanted to, I wanted to sort of tell those stories. And, you know, I think sometimes these stories are forgotten, and people don’t really talk about this. Maybe now more than ever, we’re talking a lot more about things that are really important in society. But I think for me, these were pieces of art, and I wanted to sort of tell these, these narratives based on these people, and the collection did so well. That you know, went on to travel like, you know, someone at Brighton Museum now have one in their permanent chair collection in the museum. And then one of the chairs went on to, on loan to the Vitra Design Museum and it’s travel to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and other sort of like, you know, like, amazing and powerful museums. So for me that like collection really did change my life and really put me on a map of design and also putting the radar onto a lot of different sectors, not just only design, but like fashion. But yeah, it was, you know, a project that I’m so proud of, and one that I will never forget because it you know, paved the way for me, so yeah.

Katie Treggiden 

Not bad for a collection that you thought might be your last.

Yinka Ilori 

I know, I was just, I spent so much money. You know, I think another thing I think people forget about when you’re a designer or a creative, you know is, you are essentially investing in yourself like you are your own, you know your own investor, unless you have external investment. I put every penny, sort of saved up from, you know, college and university. I didn’t I didn’t get any loans out from you know, during my university. So I just kept saving and saving, saving and invested in this business that, you know, I didn’t know it would be like this now, but I just hoped one day I could, you know, make a living off of it.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m very glad it paid off. So after that you collaborated with Restoration Station. Is that the first time we met? I feel like it is.

Yinka Ilori 

I think it is. Yes. That was the first time we met actually yeah,

Katie Treggiden 

I can remember trying to take a photo of you and you’re being extremely camera shy?

Yinka Ilori 

Yes, yes. Totally still am camera shy.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, I was gonna say, are you more confident now? Or do you still hate the camera?

Yinka Ilori 

Again, that project, I’ve done projects, quite a few sort of small collabs over the years, but I think that one for me was the most rewarding, the most like, the most meaningful one I think I’ve ever done. And I say that because, I mean, I couldn’t, I can’t, I can’t put myself in their shoes, the people that I was working with. You know, they work with ex addicts. And not just only ex addicts, but people who’ve been through trauma and different things, you know, that I could never understand or try to understand, I can never say to them, I you know, I’ve been there before. But I could connect to them on a different level, because I’ve experienced things in my life and I’ve experienced things of other people that maybe, you know, I could relate to it in some way or some shape. But I think for me that you know, what was really powerful about that was that, you know, the guys really, you know, the guys that worked there, they’ve trusted me and trusted me to sort of be in their space and hear their story, you know, which is very personal. And also, you know, for some people really hurtful and painful. And I’m sure you know that there are some things that they don’t want to remember because it was, it was an old time in their life. But also you want to celebrate that because you’ve come through something that was really tough, you know. So I know this is probably irrelevant, but I was watching a interview by sort of Kanye West, he was talking to a sort of music editor or reporter, he was saying, he’d been through a breakdown a couple years ago, he was saying, people call it a breakdown, but he would call it a breakthrough. And I thought that was quite powerful because it was a….you’ve come through something, you know. So for me, that was such a powerful project that I got to work with them. And, you know, like, again, work with, you know, Sabine and the whole Zetteler team who I love dearly, and just be part of that project. And so again, the project done well, amazing work.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, just to give our listeners a bit of context Restoration Station, a part of the Spitalfields Crypt Trust. And as you said, they work with people in recovery from complex drug and alcohol addictions, to restore furniture, and you collaborated with them to create a collection for the London Design Festival.

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, thank you guys. Thank you for the introduction. And I mean, with that process, as I worked with them, I think for around, I think it was about two weeks, or maybe more than a week. I just remember actually, but we sort of, you know, we looked at my process and sort of wanted to get into sort of tell a bit of their narrative in the pieces as well and sort of understand how you do that. But yeah, it was it was so nice to sort of see like them really enjoy it. And also understand the importance of storytelling and how you know how powerful, you know, these objects are. And I think the most exciting thing for me about the collaboration was seeing people like on the day, bid an auction and just see how people were sort of being before their shows and see how excited they were as well. That was amazing. And then now I think, I think some of them, I think maybe still do it now. I haven’t really got in touch with them but I would love to work with Restoration Station again. I’m always trying to say to them, ‘let’s try something next time or next year.’ I mean hopefully one day we can sort of do it on a bigger, bigger scale?

Katie Treggiden 

I’ve interviewed some of the volunteers there and I’ve been fascinated by the metaphor they describe in creating new value for something that’s been discarded, or unwanted, and their own recovery journey. The sort of the way they’re trying to find their own sense of value. And the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes and repair them or that journeys aren’t always linear. Is that something you found in your conversations with them?

Yinka Ilori 

100% you know, and I feel like, you know, we, we live in a, in a, in a society where and I think, if you make a mistake, people sometimes sort of, like blacklist you or you’re kind of like cancelled, and but I feel like, you know, like, with friends I grew up with and places that I grew up in that hasn’t always been the case. And that shouldn’t be the case, you know, but yeah, for like, there are some similarities and things that I’ve experienced of things that we’ve spoken about when, we’re sort of doing workshops, that you know, that you can make mistakes, and you can, you know, you can change your life. And you can, you know, fix mistakes, nothing is unfixable, like things are fixable, and I think that’s something you know, that when I’m working on I always remembered, I always remember to allow myself to make mistakes, because, you know, in the studio we make mistakes. I’m never really angry with, with people because like we’re human, like that’s the beauty, we can make mistakes, and we can fix that, we can make things better.

Katie Treggiden 

And as you say, often some of the most beautiful outcomes come from mistakes.

Yinka Ilori 

Totally, totally, so I always kind of encourage my team and I encourage myself to make mistakes. I don’t really understand the idea of perfection. What is perfection? Like, I’ve never really found perfection, I don’t know if I’ll ever find perfection. And so I try to, you know, appreciate the imperfections that life, you know, provides and gives us and just try and make the world a better place. That’s all we can do. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect. Is it possible to find perfection?

Katie Treggiden 

And it’s about, as you say, kind of care and repair and giving people and things a second chance.

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, totally. And, you know, I’ve seen that, you know, met so many friends. And I think it just depends on like, on what the second chance is, you know, there are some things that, you know, is, is based around the sort of long conversations and understanding. Again, I’m always for second chances and understanding and the willingness to sort of learn and listen, and, you know, but I’m very all for second chances.

Katie Treggiden 

Now, I might be stretching this metaphor here but do you think there’s something in the notion that if we treat the objects and the materials around us with more care, we’re treating ourselves with more care as well. The idea that we don’t need to save the planet as much as we need to save ourselves?

Yinka Ilori 

No, no, I agree, I think, you know, it’s like, if you’re going to eat fish and chips every day, or you’re going to eat sweets every day, you might likely to get ill or get spots, you know, or not feel great. So, I think if we, you know, sort of, you know, try to, you know, I mean, I’m still learning I’m trying as much as I can when it comes to recycling, or put in the waste, you know, the cardboard boxes and plastic and recycling bin you know, I get it wrong, sometimes but we’re human, you know. I think, as long as we try and do our bit and try and do our bit for the environment, then yeah, you know, we’re gonna definitely live in a, you know, a better place in the, you know, that will, you know, we get to breathe, you know, like, better air. And I don’t know, I love walking around where we live during lockdown, when noone was driving, and no one was really out and about, I used to go for walks. And it was like one of the most amazing, like cleanest walks I’ve ever had. Because no one was driving there was no, you know, like, yeah, it was, it was more nicer. But I think, I think because life is so fast and we’re always at a quick pace. I think we sometimes put that’s always something we sort of put like this second in our lives, and we want to get stuff done and get done real quickly and come home and relax. And sustainability or like being more eco friendly isn’t always at the top of our list. But when life is slower, I’m sure as you know, like, like things like we really care more about the environment, which is interesting.

Katie Treggiden 

I think there’s real power in slowing down. You’re working on much larger scale projects these days. So the colour palace for Dulwich Picture Gallery, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ now at Somerset House and Playland at the Cannes Film Festival, which was amazing by the way. Does waste or the idea of reuse still play a role in your work? And will it do so in the future?

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, that’s a very good question because I remember when we did the colour palace, we were trying to obviously find someone to buy it and sort of reinstall it somewhere. But it was costing like 50,000 pounds, I think at the time to take it down and stores and also trying to take it somewhere else. That’s a lot of money, you know, to you know, to for the installation and transportation. So, these architects, they took the colour palace, and then they took the sort of, sort of the cladding, these timber slats and redesigned them into sort of like plant beds for like schools, which is really interesting, actually. So they sort of supplied this sort of DIY kit for like the kids in the school to build their own sort of like plant bed in the schools. So not only was it like they did recycling or upcycling but then also it became quite educational that they sort of, because you see in schools like D&T is like quite boring. All you make is a box or clock or I don’t know, it’s not very exciting but the fact that they, this colour palace – the legacy continues. Like it’s growing into something else. That’s quite nice. It has a longer legacy. But most projects that I do from now on, and we’ve been doing for the last year or two, is when I get commissioned by any commissioner, part of my contract with them is that the objects have an afterlife. There is nothing in my contract that says this ends up in a skip or a bin. If they don’t have an option B then I don’t really take part in the project. So for example Colour Palace went on somewhere else. But now we have, we did some merchandise – people bought the merchandise. The project for Cannes is likely going to be recycled and reused for another project we’re doing in London for another sort of playground project, which might be a permanent one. And then I got some of the objects from the Cannes project for Pinterest in my studio. So I’ve got a mini kind of playground in my office. Yeah, fun time. So I try to you know, make sure that when I do projects of the like really big and it’s very like, production heavy, that we understand that we need to find a sort of, you know, like a solution for these objects and there’s an afterlife,.

Katie Treggiden 

I think so many people are making things from kind of reused or recycled materials, but they’re not thinking about the afterlife. And I think that’s so important at the point of design to think about what happens afterwards.

Yinka Ilori 

Yeah, no, I agree. I agree. I think what I find tough as well is that obviously you know, working with like recycled materials, whether it’s from like people like Smart Plastics or, or Durat, or whoever else makes recycled plastic or materials is that it can be quite expensive and I think sometimes, you know, the clients don’t always want to pay for recycled materials but it is also really important to kind of consider the afterlife of these. These materials, all these objects, using recycled materials is then sort of wasted when you sort of throw it away, or there’s no kind of option B.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, absolutely. So what do you think the future holds? Are you hopeful?

Yinka Ilori 

I’m very hopeful, yeah. I think, I think, you know, it’s been a, it’s been a crazy few months. You know, I’m very hopeful for the future, not just only in design, I think, yeah, design, fashion. I think, also, if you look at fashion as well, I think they’ve got something that they need to look at how you know, because they’re not the most sustainable industry as well you know, but I feel like, you know, things are going to be a lot slower and maybe, there won’t be any sort of fashion shows. I mean, I’m hearing people aren’t going to be producing collections as quick as they used to produce collections. You know, so I’m hopeful for like, I know, our society and the world we live in. And I’m actually like, for first time ever really, like hopeful and excited because the conversations I’m having with people now are really positive, empowering, and I feel like, they feel fair. So I’m excited for the future.

Katie Treggiden 

Good. That’s good to know. Thank you so much Yinka. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

Yinka Ilori 

I’ve done these before and you’ve asked some good questions. You know, this made me think, so thank you for this.

Katie Treggiden 

My pleasure. If you enjoyed this episode of Circular with Katie Treggiden, can I ask you to leave a review, and perhaps even hit the subscribe button. Those two actions really help other people to find the podcast, so I would be very grateful. Thank you. Thank you to Yinka Ilori, Gordon Barker for the edit, October Communications for marketing support, Sound Compound for the music, and to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to Circular with Katie Treggiden.

P.S. I am recording Season Two of the podcast now and the theme this time is repair. I really believe that people who make and mend with their hands hold the keys to helping us move from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ model to a more sustainable ‘circular’ economy. If you do too, I am looking for likeminded brands to help bring the meaningful conversations I know I’m going to have on this season of the podcast to a larger audience. Email me and I’ll send you more info on how you could get involved as a brand partner.