During an interview some years ago, Frank O. Gehry pulled out his pen and sketched on the only paper available—a napkin. He doodled his latest iteration of an addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. On the back, he drew the outline of a rare failure, an Alessi teakettle, whose fish-shaped handle had been no match for Michael Graves's iconic bird whistle. Over time, fortunes were reversed: The Corcoran canceled Gehry's waves, while Alessi revived the kettle. Such flukes of design history are preserved on my wrinkled napkin, under the scrawled signature “FOG.”

I was reminded of the napkin when the Washington Architectural Foundation issued a call for napkin sketches to be auctioned this month to fund its Washington, D.C.–based Architecture in the Schools program. Napkins and Sharpie pens were sent to an international roster. Returns included a sketch by Cesar Pelli of a Tulsa, Okla., arena, and a corner concept identified simply as “X” by Helmut Jahn.

  • OBJECT napkin sketch
ARTIST Helmut Jahn
PRICE TBD at benefit auction on Sept. 14
SOURCE www.wafonline.org

    Credit: Boris Feldblyum

    OBJECT napkin sketch ARTIST Helmut Jahn PRICE TBD at benefit auction on Sept. 14 SOURCE www.wafonline.org

Beyond the worthy cause, napkin art may be serious business. Not only do these humble drawings bear witness to the spontaneity of creation, David Jameson, director of ArchiTech gallery in Chicago, believes they are to buildings as Rodin's drawings were to his sculptures. “How else can one explore the mind of Gehry than to see how he boils down an idea of how a building should ‘feel' with only a couple of strokes?” he asks.

Jameson prefers “the earliest examples of a designer's ideas”—say, Daniel Libeskind's original concept for the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, which the architect is said to have sketched on a napkin at a 2001 wedding reception. Or look for value in “the most elemental story of a structure in the least number of lines.”

Jameson appraised my napkin sight unseen, and knowing it's not for sale. “My guess is that Gehry's napkin could be valued at anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000,” he said. Matted and placed in an expensive titanium frame, he figured it could go “for at least $10,000, if my client requests are to be believed.” At auction, he said, there's always the chance that “some bejeweled and tuxedoed couple could stand up in that crowd and yell ‘$50,000' if it would get their mugs in the society pages.”

I countered that it didn't capture a “Eureka!” moment, like Libeskind's crystal palace. But Jameson replied, “Gehry is more famous and probably more long-lasting than Libeskind.” And besides, he said, “The Corcoran project looks to have been a far better design.”

Bottom line: Bid early and often for charity, and always carry a Sharpie.