Who are the most underrated 20th-century designers?

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

TRANSCRIPT

James Zemaitis: I do feel that many of the great American industrial designers of the ‘20s and ‘30s from an era that I call the cocktail modernism, because so much of what they designed was tied up with the idea of Americans getting drunk in their own homes because they couldn’t drink publicly. So an entire era of entertainment style design was created ranging from cocktail shakers to coffee tables. There were designers from this era that were criminally neglected, I think, by later generations of writers and historians – designers like Norman Bel Geddes. Donald Deskey may be a household name, but I think still not appreciated. And at the same time I think that many of the great organic designers of the American post-war era are frequently overlooked. I think that one of the funny things is that some of the famous designers who produced the best design do not have any market value. Because the few things that they did were so perfect that they immediately went into production and have continued in production for 50, 60, 70 years; and thus there is nothing for a collector to acquire. The name that immediately comes to mind is the subject of a groundbreaking show that is currently, I believe, at Cranbrook at Michigan, and that would be Ero Saarinen – Saarinen who’s career was short; whose works of art are icons of the American landscape – whether it’s the arch in St. Louis or the TWA Terminal. His furniture was perfect. There are very few prototypes that exist; very few failures that exist. Everything he did really went into production and stayed in production. And so whether it’s his iconic tulip series, or his grasshopper chair which I have one – it’s still only worth like $1,500 – Saarinen is a criminally underrated designer in my world – the auction world – because there is nothing there to sell. He’s too good. He’s too perfect.

Recorded on: 1/30/08

 

 

 


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