How does American 20th-century design compare to Europe's?

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.

  • Transcript


James Zemaitis: I think that it’s still absurdly underrated in terms of its market value. I think that what we are seeing now is that in this blurring of boundaries between design, art, and craft, the uncertainties that we all have – the curators and professionals in my field have in branding or typecasting design, art, and craft, and what is it. I mean you can see that in the Museum of Art and Design – their decision to change their name from the American Craft Museum – what we are discovering however, and I think what Europeans are discovering right now is all of these great American furniture designers in the ‘60s and ’70s who in many cases worked in very isolated circumstances – the kind of proverbial hippie in the woods. California had dozens and dozens of brilliant furniture designers who exhibited only in California in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And if they exhibited nationally it was at a place like the Renwick in Washington, D.C. Right now for the first time, I really feel that we are beginning to understand an international, post-war, organic kind of woodworking vibe that is predominantly American but has contributions from France, from Denmark, from Brazil. But it’s the Americans who are being, you know, increasingly sought after. And it’s hilarious that there is five or six furniture designers working in, say, New Hope, Pennsylvania and Lambertville, New Jersey; who, you know, 10 years ago a work by Paul Evans – a guy who worked in New Hope – I mean I couldn’t give the piece away. It would be $2,000, you know, for a sideboard of his that is now worth $250,000. So . . . And who is driving that market? The Europeans.

Recorded on: 1/30/08