Spontaneous Design Genius: Important and Inventive Napkin Sketches


The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto famously said that “God made paper to draw architecture on it.” And apparently, cocktail napkins. Proof that design genius knows no boundaries, here is our roundup of impromptu sketches illustrating the many creative ideas that have originated in bars, lunchroom cafeterias and gem museums from the likes of Liz Diller, Andy Warhol, and Steve Martin’s character in Housesitter .

Should you suffer from a similar inability to effectively disengage and leave your creativity at the office, check out this helpful book to up your napkin sketching ante: Dan Moyer’s self-published Napkin Sketch Workbook . Let us know in the comments about the wackiest place you’ve ever been inspired!

Liz Diller Blur Process Sketch, ink on paper napkin (1998)

From a discussion over a meal listing “all of the qualities of architecture that can be blurred.” Image credit: Architects’ Drawings

Daniel Libeskind Concept Sketch for the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, marker on paper napkin (1990)

Inspired by the Royal Ontario Museum’s gem and crystal collection, architect Daniel Libeskind “started sketching on the closest surface he could find; a cocktail napkin at the wedding reception he was attending in the museum.” Image credit: Studio Daniel Libeskind

Charles Moore The Charles Moore Foundation brainstorm at The Windjammer restaurant, ink on paper napkin (1975)

Waiting on his clam chowder, Moore solved pressing design dilemmas. Image credit: Architects’ Drawings

Andy Warhol Butterflies, ink on linen napkin (1983)

According to the owner, Warhol did the drawing at a 1983 party hosted by Diana Vreeland, fashion columnist and editor. What’s a stained, slightly crumpled Warhol napkin worth? $30,000. Image credit: Antiques Roadshow

George McGinnis Space Mountain, ink on paper napkin (1970)

An early sketch of Disneyland’s famed Space Mountain by Imagineer George McGinnis on a napkin from the Walt Disney Enterprises cafeteria. Image credit: Mouse Planet

Lil’ Architecture Ricola Pavilion, Ricola wrapper and scale model of a human (2011)

“The napkin sketch of the future – Always exploring scale.” Image credit: Lil’ Architectures

Christoph Niemann Abstract Sunday, coffee on paper napkin (2008)

“When I came to New York in 1995, I was delighted to discover deli coffee. At the time, I was focused less on taste and more on quantity and price. Thus, I was in caffeinated paradise. In January 1999 a friend seduced me into switching to latte. Within weeks a considerable portion of my budget ended up at the L Cafe in Williamsburg.” Image credit: The New York Times Magazine

Newton Davis, played by Steve Martin Dream house, pen on paper napkin (1992)

Steve Martin’s architect character seduces Goldie Hawn with a quick sketch of the empty dream house he just built for the woman that rejected him. Image credit: Hooked on Houses

Zeljko Toncic Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Milà, pen on paper napkin (2011)

The winner of Architectural Record’s annual napkin sketch contest. Image credit: Architectural Record

Pablo Picasso Dachshund, pen on paper napkin

The famous Picasso napkin story that speaks to the value of creative genius: “Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer approached and asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, swiftly executed the work, and handed back the napkin — but not before asking for a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked: ‘How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this’ ‘No,’ Picasso replied, ‘It took me 40 years.'” Image credit: Crit 365