The Artist Who Dreamed Up a Kaleidoscopic Basketball Court for London’s Canary Wharf

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In this vein, Ilori’s “Colour Palace,” part of the 2019 London Festival of Architecture, channeled the ethos of the buzzing Balogun fabric market in Lagos, with its luminous array of wax textiles, through a contemporary wooden structure patterned with brilliantly colored geometric forms that interlocked and shifted — reflective, as well, of multicultural London. For his 2015 series “If Chairs Could Talk,” Ilori painted discarded chairs he’d found on the street in outlandish colors and reconfigured them into humble yet resplendent thrones. He drew inspiration from what he describes as the latent power of chairs to confer status, and from the ingenuity and resourcefulness he witnessed on trips to his parents’ village in Nigeria, where everyday objects are inventively repurposed and sustainability is built into the culture.

For his recent commission “Creative Courts,” Ilori designed a Technicolor basketball court set against the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, one of London’s main financial districts. It’s a place Ilori often visited as a child, accompanying his parents who worked as cleaners in the office buildings there. “It felt so alien and uninviting,” he recalls of the area’s imposing architecture and implicit sense of wealth — “a different world” from the north London council estate where he and his family lived. Returning years later as an artist, he was keen to conjure new associations for the next generation; his court, decorated in a festive riot of orange, yellow, lime green, purple and bright pink, is a joyful rebuke to the area’s glass-and-steel homogeneity, and an opportunity for people to “reclaim a sense of space,” as he sees it, in a part of the city that might otherwise seem inaccessible. “Going there and watching kids play and feel like they belong there is super- magical,” he says.

Attuned to the importance of the visual since childhood — “My mum always made sure we were dressed immaculately. If we weren’t, she’d worry that people would talk,” he says — Ilori studied furniture and product design at London Metropolitan University, and was drawn to the work of Yinka Shonibare, Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon. After school, he worked in retail for several years while striving to launch his creative practice. “I’d be running to the toilet to email clients on my mobile, pretending I was in my office in the studio, but I was actually on the till packing people’s clothes,” he says. When his furniture was selected to be part of a showcase for emerging artists at Design Miami, one of his bosses made him choose between that trip and his job at the store: It was the moment he knew he had to take the plunge into design full-time. “I always had that hunger and that drive,” he says. “But I can never forget my journey.”

The plunge has certainly made waves: Earlier this year, Ilori was recognized with an MBE award and title, bestowed by the queen, for exceptional contributions to his field. Working with a team of roughly half a dozen designers, with whom he shares a studio in northwest London, he’s fielding a steady stream of projects, including a collection of furniture launching this week, a playground for a housing estate in east London and a number of public commissions in the city center for London’s “Asphalt Art” program — large-scale murals spread across buildings, sidewalks and crosswalks — intended to enliven areas that were shut down during the pandemic and to celebrate a return to public life. “I’m really excited about projects centered around play and communities, particularly communities that lack play or don’t have access to art and design,” he says. Ilori sees his work as a kind of “spiritual revival,” an opportunity to generate warmth, delight and optimism — which he believes can have a reverberating effect. “I want to help change the mood,” he says. “I think we need that.”

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