Is design art?
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: Design, I think, has always been art. But in today’s market and in today’s media; and in recent exhibitions such as the design does not equal art exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum the last couple of years, it’s really become a hotly debated issue. In the market, design is treated like art these days. Because if you are a famous designer like Ron …or Mark …, and you produce a chair that is not necessarily meant to be sit in, but meant to be displayed in a gallery setting, you are not trying to create this chair for the masses. You don’t necessarily give a damn if it is at all functional. But what you’re more concerned with actually is working with your agent; working with your gallery representative to create a limited edition of this. And so this design is not art, or design is art debate is really completed shaped by the market today. But I do think that if you go back to the landmark exhibitions held at museums in the 1940s and ’50s – the beginning of post-war modernism – in shows like the Organic Design show at MOMA held in the early 1940s where Charles Eames and Ero Saarinen worked together and entered pieces into MOMA’s competition, in that show the idea was to create low cost, affordable furniture. But the very title “Organic Design” was hinting at the idea that these works should be sculptural; that these works were using plywood to create works of biomorphic beauty.
Recorded on: 1/30/08
Design has always been art, Zemaitis says.
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