What is design?

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 it’s funny in that there’s definitely a huge difference between how you explain design from a market perspective and how you would explain design as the curator at MOMA. In my world, design really is about beauty. It’s about how does this work fit in with my collection. How does this look next to everything else in my collection? It really has nothing to do with the old form versus function debate. Ornament can still be crime in the contemporary design movement, but the work itself is frequently an ornament. It’s not about a work having ornament applied to it. It’s about the work itself mimicking sculpture; mimicking contemporary art. And that is the fundamental basis of contemporary design in the market world. On the other side of the coin, if I was to become a full-on curator at an institution, I would be far more concerned with good design – that question, “What is good design, and form and function?” And thus one of my heroes . . . One of my personal heroes over the last 20 years in terms of who is the most innovative, smartest designer of our times, to which I would say Jasper Morrison . . . You know Morrison is not much of a presence in the market because everything he does is so minimalist and so oriented towards function – making this piece work with as few steps as possible.

Recorded on: 1/30/08