Re: Balancing Function and Beauty

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 try in my own way, but keep in mind I am, you know, far more of a . . . of a merchant, you know, who is posing as a curator. I’m a faux curator. I am fascinated with finding contemporary designers today who are working in recyclable materials; who are working in a way that’s conscious of our environment; that are creating pieces of furniture that do not add to the problems that we are dealing with. And it’s been something that I think some of the really interesting designers of today have been dealing with for the past 15 years or so. And what some of these designers have chosen to do is create or work in materials in certain aspects of their work that address environmentalism and address the problems we face in terms of renewable resources. But at the same time maybe also create a line of furniture that, you know . . . you know burns up a hell of a lot of petroleum to make; and actually are pieces not created for the masses. I think . . . I think a great example of that would be the … brothers. The … brothers on one hand are absolutely, fundamentally concerned with the social issues that they are surrounded by every day in Brazil where they live and work. And their most iconic design . . . or I should say their . . . probably their most popular chair of the 1990s, the Favela chair, is probably of course a commentary on recycling sheds, you know, from the shanty towns of Sao Paolo. On the other hand they are absolutely, you know, taking stuffed animals which they’re not finding at Goodwill shops; they’re actually buying, you know, box loads of stuffed animals from toy producers which of course cost . . . probably in many ways are not involving recyclable materials. They’re buying these stuffed animals and creating these fetishy chairs for collectors to acquire through galleries and through auction houses in limited editions which are . . . They’re investment pieces that, you know, temporarily can be placed in the kids’ . . . you know the kids’ room by today’s collectors. But they’re investment pieces. And so you have design . . . Designers today, I think, straddle the line. And they maintain separate careers within their overall career. And the better ones have social consciousness, you know, within their work. But oftentimes they have to kind of . . . they have to do both.

Recorded on: 1/30/08