James Zemaitis
Senior Vice President & Head of 20th Century Design, Sotheby's

Design Greats

To embed this video, copy this code:

Zemaitis loves Frank Lloyd Wright and other 20th-century American designers.

James Zemaitis

James Zemaitis began his auction career in 1996 at Christie's, where he worked for three years in the 20th Century Design department. Prior to his arrival at Sotheby's in 2003, Mr. Zemaitis organized a series of groundbreaking sales at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, where he was Worldwide Head of 20th-21st Century Design.

From his record-breaking $21.5 million sale total in December 2003 and the landmark sale of the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to the National Trust, to our December 2006 offering of New Life for the Noble Tree: The Dr. Arthur & Evelyn Krosnick Collection of Masterworks by George Nakashima, Sotheby's has raised the market to new heights, commanded extraordinary attention from the press and attracted a host of new collectors.

In the past five years, Mr. Zemaitis has been profiled in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, House & Garden, Art & Auction, Wallpaper and Cargo. In May 2006, he was voted "one of the 200 most influential New Yorkers" in New York magazine. Mr. Zemaitis serves on the Boards of The Wolfsonian, Miami Beach, and Manitoga: The Russel Wright Design Center, Garrison, New York.

Mr. Zemaitis received a B.A. in Art History from Oberlin College. He pursued graduate work in American Architectural History at Rutgers University.


I would have to say I do feel that my own bias is very American oriented. I consider myself to be an Americanist overall. It’s what I studied back in school, and I continue to be obsessed with mid-century American industrial designers and post-war American woodworkers – what we call the studio furniture makers or the craftsmen. And yet at the same time in today’s climate, there are very few American designers who have really achieved international renown. It’s very much shifted to Europe, but also to Japan and Brazil, and pretty much everywhere other than America in terms of design; as opposed to architecture which is an entirely different story in terms of who has achieved fame and prominence. To me my big heroes chronologically going . . . speaking, … Oliver … Paul … but also amongst Americans Russel Wright; Isamu Noguchi, who is both an artist and a furniture designer – the perfect hybrid, which is what I’m really all bout when it comes to the marketing of these designers. I’m a huge admirer of Jasper Morrison. I absolutely love the entire school of designers coming out of the Netherlands today. There are really almost too many to count at this point. And every year it seems as though four or five great designers are being launched from the Netherlands at a gallery like … here in New York. I also love Hans Wegner who just passed away last year. I think he’s one of the great chair designers of the 20th century – almost so perfectly anonymous I think sometimes almost half of America doesn’t even realize that they are sitting on a Hans Wegner chair. And he was so modest that he didn’t name any of his chairs as well, which I think has made it more difficult for people today to know what to call what he did; as opposed to some of the other designers which are just colorful, colorful names. Most of the great architects of the 20th century have dabbled in design and have created master works. And so you can’t have a conversation without mentioning … architects who did furniture. I love what Frank Lloyd Wright did, but I do not like his furniture. I find it inherently gloomy and uncomfortable.

Recorded on: 1/30/08