Doodling away

To catch those fleeting thoughts, what could be better than a small, white canvas? Fiona Sibley is impressed by a show in London’s Soho that is reviving the time-honoured art of drawing on napkins to raise funds for food charities

Napkins are useful things in more ways than one. It was a habit of Alan Fletcher’s to ask friends over dinner to write, draw or doodle something on a napkin, and in his lifetime he amassed a huge collection of these compact, spontaneous moments of inspiration, authored by an alumni of creative and artistic minds.

Fletcher’s passion for capturing a thought at the very instant of its inception in this witty, but practical act has become something of a cause célèbre, and a new exhibition pays homage to this spirit.

‘The spontaneity of brainstorms, and the immediacy of recording them as scribbles, was something I wanted to explore,’ says curator Jacki Lang. ‘The idea of using napkins to record thoughts has a big history, but seeing Alan Fletcher’s collection presented in his book, Beware Wet Paint, was a big inspiration. So many big projects, from logos to buildings, started out as doodles on napkins. [As artefacts], they are often the roots of something much bigger. The idea was to see what today’s artists and designers would produce, and how they would look in an exhibition.’

Lang presented more than 30 designers, artists and illustrators with a blank white napkin, and asked them, over the course of a month, to put whatever came into their heads down on the soft, tissuey paper. The results are unveiled this week, and will be sold to raise funds for two food charities, Concern Worldwide’s FoodAid campaign and The Peninsula School Feeding Programme, with a projected target of £10 000.

The exhibition provides an opportunity to consider the creative process, and to see a different side to each contributor’s ways of thinking, as distinct from their usual practice. ‘Often the work we see by these people is so finished and polished, so this provides a framework for something different,’ says Lang. It could be alternative practice, or just a part of the process we don’t usually get to experience.

Some of the works relate quite distinctively to their author’s familiar fingerprint. Jake and Dinos Chapman daubed their napkin with coffee, to produce a mucky, human stain. Sam Buxton created intricate cut-outs with a scalpel, reminiscent of his work with metal foils to create 3D reliefs, while Donna Wilson embroidered hers.

Furniture designer Richard Shed’s napkin was starched and folded up to form a clock with the creases marking the hours – a little complex for a social mealtime, maybe.

Many of the responses give an insight into the mental bedrock of someone’s work or life – the sought-after kernel of a bigger idea to come. Jonathan Barnbrook’s napkin is scheduled to be a hurried late arrival, and will hopefully show some of the emotions relating to his new retrospective at the Design Museum.

Martino Gamper supplied a recipe for Italian pasta, relating to the food theme of the exhibition and his current fascination with the relationship between design and food, having worked on a trattoria design with his students at the Royal College of Art.

Daniel Eatock replicated the practice behind his recent Pantone Project, allowing a spectrum of Pantone markers to bleed on to the paper, having recently done a similar experiment using a thick pad of paper to produce a set of generative one-off prints.

Some of the simple pen and ink works are the most beautiful. ‘Quentin Blake commented that he had never played around with the effect of ink spreading on a napkin, and was really taken with it,’ says Lang. Jasper Morrison’s line drawings are quite unlike the usual product form in which we experience his thinking, and are impeccably beautiful.

Appropriately, Shin Azumi worked on his detailed sketch of some heavy machinery while at the airport, embracing the transient nature of the medium. Similarly, Ben Young, an oil painter, created his mass of overlaid, jumbled stream-of-consciousness doodles in image and text while sitting in a café. Perhaps this lends them some authenticity.

These visual mementoes all provide a tasty morsel of someone’s thoughts, and offer bidders the chance to own work by an artist or designer that would be otherwise unaffordable. It may even provoke a flurry of activity of napkin doodles to reappear. Fletcher would be proud.

Napkin runs until 13 July at The Gallery Soho, 125 Charing Cross Road, London WC2

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