Get to know this expert noted for challenging traditional ways of viewing and selling design
James Zemaitis has spent his career in the world of collectible design—including a 10-year stint as Senior VP at Sotheby’s, where he produced over 50 auctions and catalogs of 20th- and 21st-century design. He went on to oversee the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s newly installed contemporary design galleries before accepting his current position as Director of Museum Relations at New York’s R & Company. His responsibilities include forging partnerships with museums and facilitating their exhibition and acquisition of both historical and contemporary design objects.
A quick scroll through Zemaitis’s IG feed reveals both his ongoing passion for design and the depth of his knowledge. Reading like a social media design encyclopedia, it’s peppered with stories of the talents behind the pieces, first impressions, and other valuable insights. It’s no wonder that he’s so widely respected for challenging traditional ways of viewing and selling design as well as for ushering a new wave of designers into the market. Who better to ask where design has been, where it’s going, and how to start collecting than this former member of the Design Miami Vetting Committee?
Currently on your mind:
My obsession with gardening has completely overtaken my thoughts: watering my tomatoes and basil, weeding out invasive species along the edges of my property, trying to create the perfect lawn using only organic fertilizer, picking up litter on the side of the road. Since being forced to stay indoors at my New Jersey home during the pandemic, I am always thinking that I should be outdoors, taking advantage of this strange moment in my life.
What’s on your desk right now?
Artwork by my three daughters. A series of recent postcards sent to me by Chris Mahoney, the legendary photographs specialist at Phillips, consisting of various exposures taken of the same gnarly tree. Several broken gnome garden ornaments. The Sonny Rollins album Saxophone Colossus with the incredible blue and black cover. An Epson printer that doesn't really work.
What sparked your interest in design?
I had what I would call a classic art history education at Oberlin College. It has always been an extremely liberal school, but in the 1980s-90s, its art history department was quite traditional, and I loved the Old Masters. I'm terrible at languages, otherwise I would have ended up an art historian specializing in Baroque landscape paintings.
I took several courses in the history of American architecture, and Oberlin's incredible Allen Memorial Art Museum has one of the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian houses in its collection. I loved the social and vernacular side of architecture in particular, and I was fascinated with the furniture I found in this Wright home. My first love was the furniture and lighting of the American Arts & Crafts movement and the Prairie School, and that led me into the field I’m in today.
Five best examples of 20th-century design?
I am going to define "best" as "favorite," but also choose only favorite works which have incredible significance in design history:
—The Gerald Summers Armchair, designed in 1934 in bent plywood, produced by Makers of Simple Furniture, London
—Russel Wright’s American Modern Dinnerware, designed in 1937 in earthenware, produced by Steubenville Pottery, Ohio
—Marianne Brandt’s Tea Infuser, designed in 1924 in various metals, produced in the Bauhaus Metal Workshop, Dessau
—Any great example of a George Nakashima Coffee Table with the Minguren I base, especially the more organic, heavily fissured examples
—Greta Magnusson Grossman’s Cobra Lighting Fixture, designed in 1948, produced by Ralph O. Smith Company, Burbank, CA
What will characterize 21st-century design?
The most important designs will no longer be judged on their aesthetics, but on their ability to save the world.
If you could own any piece of design, what would it be and why?
I would love to own a piece of original Bauhaus metalwork. All of Brandt's Tea Infusers that are known to exist are in some sort of institution, so I would settle for Hans Przyrembel's Tea Caddy from 1926, which looks like an American cocktail shaker of the era.
If you were new to collecting design, where would you start?
I have always maintained that one either has the collecting gene or one doesn't. And it's obvious. If you have gathered and sorted and catalogued things since childhood, whether it's stamps or sea glass or vinyl or books, then you can join the club. Otherwise, it's just decorating.
If you have the gene, and you would like to start a design collection, I would recommend starting with museum quality historical pieces that cost less than a few hundred dollars to acquire, just like in the original MoMA shows of the 1930s-50s that promoted low-cost design. If you surf through MoMA's database for its permanent collection, you can find hundreds of pieces from that era which might be quite difficult to find but might cost next to nothing. Garden rakes, scientific glassware, you name it!
Notable memory from Design Miami:
From the early days, the first or second year, Tom Dixon was making a chair with a blowtorch on the sidewalk. Then I got to know Tom a bit when he was the Creative Director at Artek, and in 2007 he installed the Artek Pavilion designed by Shigeru Ban, which was filled with vintage Aalto furniture from their Second Cycle shop. It was absolutely incredible. We later sold the actual Pavilion at Sotheby's!
In recent years, the best thing to happen to the fair was when Jen Roberts convinced the Bard of Shaker furniture, John Keith Russell, to exhibit at the fair. His booth is right down the way from our gallery's booth, and I never sell anything. I’m too busy hanging out with John, just soaking up his connoisseurship.
A recent movie or book that moved you:
I just finished Kim Gordon's beautiful and sad Girl in a Band. My wife and I are huge fans of Welsh and Scottish police shows, such as Shetland and Hinterland on Acorn TV.
Ultimate dinner guest:
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received:
Bill Ruprecht, the former CEO of Sotheby's, once told me to stop acting like a cornered dog when I was angry.