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.
James Zemaitis: When I first began putting together catalogs as an assistant to my boss in the mid-1990s, the catalogs were very oriented towards the art nouveau and the art deco aspects of 20th century design. And catalogs were still oriented around the idea that the highest end collectors still acquired curios; the idea that they had glass cases in their living room, and they lined up pieces of specific cameo glass by a French art nouveau designer; or Lalique glass from the 1920s and 1930s, and that kind of idea of compulsive collecting; of having one of everything, I actually believe for the most part is dying with the older generations. The younger generations of collectors in their twenties and thirties, look. There’s always gonna be people who wanna have Pez dispensers and lunch boxes; and the people who are gonna have compulsive, completist style collections. But the vast majority of what I call collectors today are much more influenced by the idea of curating their collection to have the greatest hits or their particular take on that and working it with their interiors. So what drew me to 20th century design was the feeling that modernism wasn’t being properly understood by collectors on the auction market; and that auctions weren’t recognizing the . . . the contributions of modernism; and that for some reason at the highest end, collecting stopped in the late 1920s and 1930s. And so I became focused on developing a market for something that museums had been recognizing for the past 60 years. It wasn’t a question of now today, we play a role in developing contemporary designers literally as they produced their work. But there was so much to be done there over the last 10 years in terms of re-discovering forgotten designers of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
I think that there are fundamental tenets in terms of how design is promoted contemporaneously I guess by the curators who organized shows and exhibitions each decade. It’s always these expositions of the teens and ‘20s and ‘30s that introduced the great designers of that era to a wider audience. And it was always the exhibitions that were held at MOMA in the ‘40s and ‘50s that introduced post-war American modernists to a wider audience; and also introduced them thus to retailers that picked up and produced their furniture for them. Today I think it’s a little more murky because there is so much more coverage, I think, of design in today’s media. And there’s so many different ways to cover design today in the media than there was in the traditional print era. I also think there is a lack of focus now as a result. There are so many fairs; so many different kind of conventions that occur. And frankly museums today are not covering contemporary design in as kind of a rational encyclopedic way as they used to in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Recorded on: 1/30/08