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The Central Saint Martins associate lecturer, consummate fashion illustrator and occasional ceramicist talks to Museum about snooping.
It’s mid-morning in London, and John Booth is sitting before a computer in his Hackney Road studio—which contains not one, but two desks, and also functions as his bedroom—logged into Skype. Booth, who is wearing a cap and a black, round-neck t-shirt, is surrounded by a anomalous melange of bric-a-brack, including a Vogue drinking container, patterned plates, a plastic model of Snoopy and a vase of dead sunflowers. (“Sorry about those.”) Booth hasn’t used Skype in some time and conceeds that he’s a little technologically inept. It’s essential we figure out the video function though, because he is a curious man. “Part of my personality is that I’m quite nosy,” he begins. “I’m really intrigued by people. That’s why I made this a video call—I wanted to see you!”
Fortuitously, perhaps, Booth’s recent commissions have allowed him to indulge in yearnings often relegated to the village busybody. After publishing his email in his Instagram bio, the fashion illustrator and textile designer began to receive a slew of private enquiries. Outside of print designs for Christopher Shannon and instinctive, tender collaged series for SHOWstudio, Booth began to draw portraits of ordinary people around London: couples, families, individuals and occasionally, their pets. It was a goldmine for a snoop. “I’m on site!” Booth exclaims, elated by the prospect of intimacy. “I go to the house of a stranger with my kit. Weirdly, I really enjoy it … I’m always happy to draw real people, rather than from a photograph. It satisfies my need to meet people and investigate them. I don’t have a strict or an academic approach to drawing, and that allows me to talk to my subject as I draw them—almost conduct an interview. I’m not scared to ask questions. I’ve always been told I’m really nosy, but I just need to know stuff.”
I wonder, aloud, what questions Booth asks his portrait sitters.
“If you’re nosy, you’re nosy,” he stresses. “It’s an intrinsic part of who I am. I’m always intrigued when people aren’t nosy. I mean, some people’s default setting is to not ask questions. It’s part of good humour in a way—or at least I think so. I like asking [strangers] about their past: their childhood, where they grew up, how the geography of their youth has had an impact on them. Food is a big part of it too. I want to know personal stuff, the more mundane the better. Rather than asking about the last exhibition they attended—”
“You’ll ask where bought their forks,” I offer.
There are rules to being nosy, and these are entirely self-imposed. Booth stresses his manners—he certainly isn’t a drawer rifler—but preliminary Google searches are inevitable in most cases, as are Instagram checks. The commissions also mean he can leave his studio, which, when doubling as a bedroom, has the potential to be stifling.
“I could do a share space, but equally, I’m so easily distracted,” Booth says. “If I share with people I’m just going to end up talking with them and having coffee all day. I shouldn’t be sharing this. I’m just telling you all my secrets. I suppose I’m saying I’m just lazy.”
Of course he isn’t.
Booth graduated Central Saint Martins’ College of Art and Design back in 2009, specialising in fashion print, and by February the next year he was teaching at the very same school, after internships and assistant work at Galliano and Zandra Rhodes. He’s now at CSM half the week, an associate lecturer for the textiles foundation course and a visiting lecturer in fashion illustration. His own work, which is quick and scribbled and has all the qualities of a happy accident, is often generated while instructing students in class. At home, the materials are stored meticulously: Winsor & Newton inks, Posca pens, Goache paints, water soluble crayons, various paper stocks used for collages.
For the High flying issue of Museum, Booth was commissioned to illustrate Walter Van Beirendonck and Stephen Jones, as well as design a limited edition cover. He has met Van Beirendonck on two occasions, including a book signing at Dover Street Market. The assumption was that Van Beirendonck’s admirers would bring a single book. Booth “was a little cheeky” and arrived armed with three or four. I can only assume he asked too many questions until the line behind him lengthened, swelling up like a crescendo, waiting for his interrogation to cease.