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Designing is dreaming, but is it affordable?

Designer Yinka Ilori’s limited edition bag collection with Marks & Spencer sparks a conversation on being a designer in present times and the economic cost of dreaming.

by Riya PatelPublished on : Mar 31, 2023

Down in the subterranean food hall of Marks & Spencer Kensington, I was offered a brightly coloured plastic carrier bag. It was the one from a collaboration between the stalwart British department store and one of London design scene's favourite sons: Yinka Ilori. If you live in the capital, you can’t fail to have noticed Ilori’s large-scale public works that explode with colour and pattern, referencing his Nigerian heritage. In the past few years, the multidisciplinary artist and designer has transformed pavilions, playgrounds, basketball courts, shop windows and pedestrian crossings across the city in an unstoppable rise of his popular influence.

The limited-edition bag then came as no surprise. Fans can buy one for 60p (although one plucky eBay seller is trying to sell it for £20), considerably more affordable than anything in Ilori's high-end homeware line. High-street and high fashion collabs have become the norm of course (think Viktor and Rolf x H&M or JW Anderson x Uniqlo) with items being snapped up in seconds. But there’s a different story to Ilori and this boring British department store. The designer worked in its Moorgate branch for eight years while establishing his studio. His employee’s name badge from the time is currently on display in his solo show Parables for Happiness at London’s Design Museum and often appears in Ilori’s Instagram stories as a nod to his career’s humble start.

Yinka Ilori’s solo show Parables for Happiness at London’s Design Museum | Yinka Ilori | STIRworld
Yinka Ilori’s solo show Parables for Happiness at London’s Design Museum Image: Felix Speller

“It was a time in my life where I was dreaming up a lot of designs and ideas and I wanted to use those memories as the basis for these new artworks—encouraging everyone to keep dreaming,” the designer has said. His bold patterns and colours hail from the kind of traditional fabrics sold in the vibrant markets of Lagos, a far cry from the strip-lit sterile containers where Marks & Spencer sells its polite homewares and clothing to the British middle class. Was it these mundane surroundings that fuelled a young Ilori’s dreams of escape? Did his years among rows of affordable sandwiches, pastel blouses and comfortable knitwear somehow contribute as the stark opposite of the playful, colourful expressions he wanted to create? You have to wonder. Some of the best music Britain has ever produced has come out of its dreary suburbs, after all.

The bag and its appeal to 'the dreamer inside all of us' made me think about who can actually afford to dream. The collaboration is honest about the designer’s need to make a practical living while aiming to create work in his own name. Many of his contemporaries have reached the same point, more or less straight from graduation, and are less candid about their means of getting by as they climbed the ladder to recognition. At a time when it’s increasingly expensive to live in the city and pursue work as a designer, how many dreamers are still awaiting their big chance because of financial constraints? How many dreams are on hold due to caring commitments or poor health? How many dreams were quashed early because of an educational system or family culture that discourages creativity in favour of more obvious routes to wealth and stability?

Washington Skeleton Chair, 2013, Yinka Ilori, Parables for Happiness | Yinka Ilori| STIRworld
Washington Skeleton Chair, 2013, Yinka Ilori, Parables for Happiness Image: Felix Speller

Like many industries, design is a path that is made smoother by connections. ‘Nepo baby’ has been the early 2023’s buzz term, stemming from a New York magazine article highlighting familial connections in the Hollywood film industry and hidden networks of power. It has given rise to copycat exercises in British journalism and other fields, with debates revealing real bitterness towards those who have gained career advantages by nepotism rather than hard work and talent. The nepo baby revelations are particularly cutting at a time of financial crisis—many people’s wages are in effective decline and unable to upkeep basic living standards. Despite small steps towards inclusivity, ‘making it’ as a designer without existing wealth or connections remains a difficult prospect. This industry runs on connection with human emotions, but fails to have a greater impact on all the voices it is excluding.

Yinka Ilori’s large scale installation for ‘Bring London Together| Yinka Ilori | STIRworld
Yinka Ilori’s large scale installation for ‘Bring London Together’ Image: Courtesy of Yinka Ilori

Dreaming is the very essence of design. To be a designer you must imagine a future that doesn’t exist yet. To transcend today’s drudgery and envision a better way of living for yourself or for society. Yet dreaming is not what we are encouraged to do at school. Design education in the UK school system has been marginalised by successive governments that prioritise core academic subjects. A national obsession with results, scores and tables has drummed out students’ dreaming and exhausted the teachers who once might have encouraged it. The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the attainment gap between children from deprived communities and those from affluent backgrounds. This makes the likelihood of future designers, from a variety of backgrounds, slimmer still. Yinka Ilori is undoubtedly someone the UK wants to celebrate. He was made an MBE in 2021. His bags, like all of his work, will bring joy, hope and happiness to anyone dreaming of better things. But he is unique. To keep your dream alive through eight years of working in a department store takes incredible self-belief, something future designers will have to cultivate in spades to follow a similar path.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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