The Competitive World of School Lunches

Aviva Wittenberg combines colorful foods into combinations of nut-free, dairy-free and vegetarian lunches each day for her daughters and posts pictures on Instagram.
Aviva Wittenberg combines colorful foods into combinations of nut-free, dairy-free and vegetarian lunches each day for her daughters and posts pictures on Instagram. Photo: Aviva Wittenberg

Aviva Wittenberg packs two school lunches every morning, one vegetarian and the other dairy-free. Her children take them to separate Toronto schools with nut-free restrictions.

That might send most parents weeping into their thermoses. Ms. Wittenberg, a 43-year-old information-technology consultant and mother to daughters Talia, 10, and Noa, 13, embraces the challenge, posting her lunchbox creations on Instagram each day before noon. One recent Tuesday, it was veggie and tofu samosas, surrounded by an assortment of eight fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, grapes and lupini beans. By 3 p.m., the image had 111 likes. “Beautiful,” wrote Christina Diep, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom in West Hollywood, Calif. “I wish my six-year-old would eat this lunch.”

Welcome to the world of competitive school lunches. People’s obsession with posting pictures of food on social media has moved to the lunchbox crowd. Posts on Instagram about lunchboxes rose 90% in the first eight months of 2018, according to Socialbakers, a social-media analytics firm that analyzed high-traffic accounts with more than 1,000 followers. Lunchbox makers report record back-to-school sales: Boolabox says revenues for its Yumboxes rose 35% this summer, says co-founder Daniela Devitt.

Beau Coffron creates an elaborate themed lunch each week, such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Beau Coffron creates an elaborate themed lunch each week, such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Photo: Beau Coffron/lunchboxdad

Japanese-inspired multi-compartment boxes have helped fuel lunchbox one-upsmanship. Preschool teachers sometimes encourage parents to buy into stylish all-in-one Bento-box brands such as Yumbox, PlanetBox and OmieBox. A lunchtime with fewer containers and plastic bags means less mess and confusion. Parents like that it eliminates cupboards overflowing with mismatched lids.

The lunchbox craze has helped fuel a cottage industry that includes specialized utensils, pre-written parental love notes and lunchbox-planning apps. In the months before San Francisco stay-at-home mom Nancy Yen launched her $39.50 OmieBox, she interviewed dozens of lunch-packing mothers nationwide.

“We got deep into the psychology of lunchmaking,” says Ms. Yen. A big theme that emerged in her consumer research was the guilt-ridden working mom. “It was, ‘I can’t be there for everything, so I am going to make you the most kick-ass lunch. I’m going to make sure you know I love you. And I’m going to do it at night when the kid’s asleep and it’s going to be amazing.’ ”

Lunchbox support groups, including Think Inside the Lunchbox and My Lunches for My Girl, are lighting up Facebook . Parents say that when they post their creations, it creates a bit of healthy competition. “It’s motivation,” says Daniela Oltean, a 46-year-old scientist in San Marcos, Calif., and mother to 12-year-old Sabrina and 10-year-old Conrad. Some days are more ambitious than others, and she says everyone aims high in the first few weeks of school.

Daniela Oltean (standing) began a Facebook group with her friend Kinda Arzon to share lunchbox ideas for their children. From left: Louis Arzon, Leila Arzon, Sabrina Post and Conrad Post.
Daniela Oltean (standing) began a Facebook group with her friend Kinda Arzon to share lunchbox ideas for their children. From left: Louis Arzon, Leila Arzon, Sabrina Post and Conrad Post. Photo: Kinda Arzon Photography

“Tried to copy one of the Starbucks protein boxes,” Ms. Oltean wrote on Sept. 14, including a picture of a hard-boiled egg, salami sticks and sliced fruit. On Sept. 22, she wrote “Baked croissants for breakfast and made tuna salad for lunch. They can have cat food for dinner.” The daily slog of combining sliced fruit, sandwich bread and goldfish crackers can be hard, she says. “Some days it feels like ‘I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.’ But then you see someone else post a picture and say ‘the kids like it,’ ” she says. That fuels more ideas.

Melissa Wheeler, a stay-at-home mother of three in Newcastle, Ontario, posts a diary of her lunchbox creations on Facebook. The idea started four years ago, when she and a friend would send images of their kindergartners’ lunches to one another. “We would joke around, and sometimes it was a little competitive,” she recalls. “Then our friends would make comments, and follow us, and then my phone got full of lunchbox photos.”

Melissa Wheeler starts prepping her daughter’s lunchbox each Sunday by storing chopped ingredients in containers.
Melissa Wheeler starts prepping her daughter’s lunchbox each Sunday by storing chopped ingredients in containers. Photo: Melissa Wheeler

In September, she started a new page, called My Lunches for My Girl, detailing her lunchbox-planning process, which usually begins on Sunday with some preparatory slicing and dicing. “Ok veggies prep done,” says a Sept. 23 post with a picture of nine plastic containers of vegetables diced and julienned. The following day, she posted a lunchbox for her 7-year-old daughter, Lily, that included cheese tortellini and an egg frittata.

Some parents save one day a week for their best effort. Beau Coffron, a 40-year-old director for a nonprofit in Oklahoma City, packs a themed lunch every Monday for his two oldest children, Abigail, 12, and Zachary, 8. In recent weeks, lunchbox themes have included Princess Bride, Legos and Star Wars. He started making specialized lunchboxes when Abigail started kindergarten, inspired by images on social media. “I saw moms doing stuff online and I was like, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ ” he recalls.

Today, he says his children don’t react to his creative efforts in quite the same way. “My daughter loves to show it to as many people as possible,” he says. Zachary, on the other hand, “doesn’t like all the attention.”

As with many things on social media, it helps to brace for criticism. Ms. Wheeler says her feelings have been hurt after posting a lunchbox picture. “Once, someone said I put too much fruit,” she recalls. “I cried over it.”

Kelly Pfeiffer, assisted by her daughter Kaela, photographs a school lunch for her Nosh and Nourish blog and Instagram account.
Kelly Pfeiffer, assisted by her daughter Kaela, photographs a school lunch for her Nosh and Nourish blog and Instagram account. Photo: Jenna Sparks Photography

Some parents like the stepped-up challenge to an often thankless task. Kelly Pfeiffer, a 38-year-old food blogger in Denver, says she is on a self-imposed mission to create one letter-themed lunch each week for her daughter, Kaela, 8. Last week, Kaela received an O lunchbox that included an orzo salad, an orange and an Oreo cookie. (Ms. Pfeiffer, who has written two cookbooks and blogs about food regularly, says she sometimes gets paid to show branded products in her Instagram photos.)

The idea inspired Mabby Howard, a 34-year-old business operation manager in Los Angeles and mother of 4-year-old twins, to recently try a P-themed lunchbox that included popcorn, pretzels and pineapple, posting it on her own Instagram account.

“I’m not a Pinterest mom, I’m not super creative, and I’m not particularly social-media active,” Ms. Howard says. “But this is so fun.”

Write to Anne Marie Chaker at anne-marie.chaker@wsj.com

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces

THE 3,650-DAY BARGAIN This Hermes Kelly bag will set you back $9,500 but if you carry it every day for 10 years, the cost a day will be only $2.60. Kelly 25” Bag, $9,500, Hermès, 800-441-4488
THE 3,650-DAY BARGAIN This Hermes Kelly bag will set you back $9,500 but if you carry it every day for 10 years, the cost a day will be only $2.60. Kelly 25” Bag, $9,500, Hermès, 800-441-4488 Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

I AM PROBABLY not the only person to have suffered a minor, first-world breakdown at Madame Paulette, a Manhattan dry cleaner that bills itself as “the world’s leading cleaning and restoration specialist.” Not New York—the world. I’d gone there in an attempt to salvage a flared black wool Azzedine Alaïa skirt purchased in Paris years before. Bought on a deep discount, yet still expensive for me, the skirt was pivotal: I’d worn it at least once a week for over 10 years. It was, unequivocally, my best fashion investment ever, and due to an encounter with a savage dryer setting it appeared to be ruined.

With the help of one of Madame Paulette’s elves, I managed to resurrect the skirt, and its near loss made me even more conscious of how important our investment fashion pieces are. These are the precious—usually expensive but not always—garments that we wear faithfully year after year. Although pulling the trigger on a perfectly cut camel-hair coat or a handmade pebbled-leather handbag can be painful, with time the expense can be worth it. That’s why sources ranging from penny-pinching blogs to your Aunt Sue encourage you to think about an item’s CPW: its Cost Per Wear over time. But can fashion ever really be a good “investment”?

The behavioral economist Cass Sunstein explained to me that there are two ways to think of investment. The first, he said, “is that you have it, and you enjoy it, and you use it for a long, long time.” Like a solid family car, or a good suit. The second kind is a more typical investment scenario: putting money into “stocks or comic books or art” in the hopes of reselling it later at a profit. Although fashion investments have historically fallen into the former category, they’re now entering the latter too.

Fashion speculators have long hawked rare Supreme hoodies and Hermès Birkin bags on the secondary market, but websites like The RealReal and Rebag are making it easier for laypeople to resell. Of the pieces that fall into the investment category, Charles Gorra, the founder and CEO of Rebag, said, “It’s rare that they are pure financial investments, but what we see most is a hybrid rationale,” a combination of a “fashion-oriented decision” and a “rational financial mind-set.” Buy it today because you love it and want to wear it, but be comforted by the idea that your wardrobe has value. (Those who have read “The Devil Wears Prada” will remember that its lead character buys her independence from a particularly demeaning 9-to-5 job by selling her designer clothing.)

Investment shopping needn’t be dryly analytical, however. I interviewed 10 stylish women about their best fashion buy ever, and their passionate, idiosyncratic answers run the gamut from a lavender flowered skirt to bondage-inspired harness boots.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Lucia Pica’s Red Puffer

Chanel’s global creative makeup and color director on the unexpected chic of a $790 North Face down jacket.

The Piece: I went on this Ayurvedic retreat in New Mexico and I wanted to be warm and comfortable. I saw this puffer jacket and it was the best red I’ve ever seen.

Why It’s Endured: I’m wearing this warm thing but I don’t feel dressed down because of the color; it’s like wearing a lipstick that brightens up your face. It’s hard to hide with a bright red jacket. And funnily the color red seems to go with everything. I wear it with jeans and a Chanel bag and red lipstick. I feel quite empowered by the color.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $.89 per wear if worn every winter day for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Yasmin Sewell’s Elongated Biker Jacket

The Farfetch VP of style and creative on a $2,750 tweaked classic by designer Magda Butrym.

The Piece: I can’t recall any moment from when I was a child until now that a biker jacket wasn’t in fashion. Normally I don’t suit the shape of a biker because they’re a bit short. But when I saw this one in the Magda Butrym lookbook, I thought, ”That’s the most beautiful biker I’ve ever seen.” Because it’s longer, it’s not an obvious shape.

Why It’s Endured: With something you can wear for 50 years, you might as well buy the best quality and get the most bang for your buck.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $10.57 per wear if worn once a week every spring and fall for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Angela Dimayuga’s Thigh-High Garter Boots

The creative director for food and culture at Standard Hotels considers the fun-per-wear of $800 Helmut Lang boots.

The Piece: I feel good about spending my money at a place like Opening Ceremony because my friends run it, and that’s where I got these boots. They were definitely a splurge.

Why It’s Endured: With the garter that’s on them, it ends up making sense that you want to show off the garter or the harness by wearing it with a skirt or shorts. They’re a pretty strong look and I dress very much like a New Yorker where you have to go from day to night often or just wear something that’s super comfortable or ideally both. I know that they’re kind of edgy-looking but they feel timeless. I bust them out when I want to have a fun night out.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $3.33 per wear if worn twice a month for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Lisa Eisner’s Rose-Colored Glasses

The Los Angeles jewelry designer on the allure of $500 vintage Cartier gold sunglasses.

The Piece: I got them at a flea market. I had been looking for them. It was sort of a fetishistic thing, like, “I have to find those Cartier sunglasses.” I still wear them all the time, and nobody has them so that’s the greatest thing ever.

Why It’s Endured: There’s something perfect about the lens color. It’s not too dark, it’s not too light, it’s just right. It’s almost like rose-colored glasses. And the gold, the geezer look of it, and that little bit of burgundy lacquer, that really drove me crazy.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $.27 per wear if worn half the year for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Tata Harper’s Flirtatious Trench Dress

The natural-beauty entrepreneur on a $1,300 Khaite trench dress with a surprising back.

The Piece: It is serious and timeless in the front, it looks like a trench. And then in the back it has a little cape and an open back, so it has just a touch of sexiness.

Why It’s Endured: The fabric is really nice and heavy. When I wear it I feel very feminine. When I have it on, people always mention it. They want to know the brand.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $10.83 per wear if worn once a month for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Photo: Matthew Cook
Kai Avent-deLeon’s Perfect Slip Dress

The owner of Brooklyn store Sincerely, Tommy on the ease of a $245 John Patrick Organic slip dress.

The Piece: It’s one of my go-to pieces that I can throw on really easily, and now that I’m pregnant and my belly is growing, it allows for extra room. The fabric feels good against my skin. I’ve always loved slip dresses and usually I’ll go the vintage route but it’s hard to find vintage bias-cut slip dresses.

Why It’s Endured: Because I can just mix and match it, it’s really simple. I appreciate that, for someone who’s on the go a lot, and now being pregnant, just not having to make a huge fuss.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $1.02 per wear if worn twice a month for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Olivia Kim’s Navy Men’s Watch

The Nordstrom’s VP of creative projects on the pleasure of buying a $23,550 Rolex for herself—at the airport.

The Piece: Growing up, my mom, my aunt, my family, they all wore Rolexes. To me that was always a watch that you strive for. When this series of men’s watches came out in Basel I was obsessed, and then they came out with navy, one of my all-time favorite colors. But you don’t just go out and buy a Rolex every day. The funny thing is that I bought it at the airport, which is my absolute favorite place to buy watches because the selection is really good. It’s also a sense of accomplishment where it’s like, I worked really hard, I can afford a watch.

Why It’s Endured: It makes you feel dressed up even when you’re not. Half the time it’s covered by your sleeve, but there’s something elegant about having something that is so beautiful and functional, and is not this big showy piece. It’s the way that women feel about lingerie—it’s completely for yourself.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $6.47 per wear if worn every day for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Elizabeth Stribling’s Red Couture Pantsuit

The chairman of Stribling & Associates shops for serious pieces on vacation, and this $4,500 Christian Lacroix outfit is no exception.

The Piece: Since I work hard in the real-estate world in New York, I do my shopping when I’m on holiday, and when I’m on holiday, I’m in France. So I bought this suit at the Christian Lacroix boutique in Cannes. He cut clothes in a way that fits my size and he also loved color. I’m a woman who was born in the South and we wear lots of color in the South.

Why It’s Endured: Red is a powerful color, and it makes a statement. It is a real power suit, and very feminine.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $37.50 per wear if worn once a month for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Rachel Cope’s Lavender Printed Skirt

The co-founder and creative director of Calico Wallpaper on the $450 special piece from Rachel Comey that helped her break out of her shell.

The Piece: I bought it for a photo shoot for a collaborative exhibition that we put on for Salone de Mobile. I love Rachel Comey and I typically go to her store if I have a special occasion. I really respect her as an artist, as a mother, as a business owner.

Why It’s Endured: The color stands out from my wardrobe. Everything I have is black and it’s this beautiful light lavender burst of purple. It improves my mood. It’s symbolic that I’m feeling more confident being a female designer and I don’t have to be afraid to be seen.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $1.88 per wear if worn twice a month for 10 years.

10 Stylish Women on Essential Investment-Fashion Pieces
Illustration: Matthew Cook
Taryn Toomey’s Uplifting Boots

The creator of exercise empire The Class on the $680 Isabel Marant suede boots that dress up her everyday leotard.

The Piece: Even though they’re suede and something that you would wear for the colder seasons, I wore them all summer, because they have a hidden heel. I’m still wearing them every day and I bought a second pair.

Why It’s Endured: I’m often going from the studio to the street, so for me to be able to throw a boot on that has a little bit of a lift in it is key so I don’t look like I just left the gym. I always put some sort of footwear on that’s not sneakers. It just makes you feel a little bit more elegant.

Estimated Cost Per Wear: $.65 per wear if worn twice a week for 10 years.

Corrections & Amplifications
The caption of the bag photographed for the holding image of the story was labeled incorrectly. The bag’s name was punctuated as a Kelly 25” when the correct name of the bag is simply Kelly 25. (September 28)

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Appeared in the September 29, 2018, print edition as ‘The 3,650-Day Bargain.’

Apartment Tour: An Ethereal Home in Rotterdam

CURVE APPEAL A Pierre Paulin sofa and steel-and-concrete table by FOS in the open living area of Marcelis and Cournet’s apartment in the Coolhaven district of Rotterdam.
CURVE APPEAL A Pierre Paulin sofa and steel-and-concrete table by FOS in the open living area of Marcelis and Cournet’s apartment in the Coolhaven district of Rotterdam. Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

COOLHAVEN (the Dutch name translates to “coal harbor”), a waterfront district on the west side of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, is gentrifying fast. But the converted warehouse that designer Sabine Marcelis occupies is still a work in progress, if the loop of construction wire substituting for a knob on the front door is any indication.

Her gritty surroundings and the boat traffic that navigates the river Schie just outside her window aren’t nearly as captivating as the view she’s come up with indoors, where on the loft’s freshly poured concrete floors a fleet of colorful objects idles: a six-foot-tall ceramic totem by local artist Koen Taselaar; a blocky chaise of wire mesh from Belgian design duo Muller Van Severen; and a tiny table that looks like a meteorite pierced by shards of a shimmery disco ball, by the Danish artist FOS.

MATERIAL WORLD Two draperies, translucent and opaque, encircle the bed.
MATERIAL WORLD Two draperies, translucent and opaque, encircle the bed. Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

Marcelis acquired the pieces one by one as opportunities to barter for her own work came along. Even the sofa, a long squeeze of pink peppermint designed by Pierre Paulin in the 1960s, was a trade of sorts with Paulin’s son Benjamin, whom she met a few years ago. The furnishings don’t work together so much as coexist, and she’s still experimenting with their placement.

“I like the idea of filling a house with richness, because you’re surrounded by the work of your friends,” says the designer, 33, balancing a plate of store-bought baklava between us on the pink sofa. Her own contributions are limited to fill-ins—a discarded panel of tinted glass that’s become a dining table, a botched resin cube repurposed as a planter and a few chairs and barstools she made with her boyfriend, architect Paul Cournet, when they couldn’t find seating they liked.

DEEP SEATED Cournet and Marcelis on a double chaise of steel wire by Belgian design duo Muller Van Severen.
DEEP SEATED Cournet and Marcelis on a double chaise of steel wire by Belgian design duo Muller Van Severen. Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

The couple moved into the building last year after an 18-month renovation that subdivided an open floor into 2,600 square feet and an outdoor terrace plus two smaller units, which they now rent out. The unfettered space was a turn-on for Cournet, 30, a Frenchman who has lived in his fair share of vertically oriented Dutch houses during his eight years in the Rotterdam office of Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm OMA.

“Paul said, ‘We’re not going to put up any walls,’ ” Marcelis recalls. “And I said, ‘Are you sure? Maybe that’s a little extreme? What about some bathrooms?’ ” She laughs. “So now we have The Wall.” In one decisive move, Cournet inserted what he describes as “a slim band of pocketed rooms, where each space is defined by one single material and color to create distinct environments.” A storage area is lined in plywood from floor to ceiling, while the powder room is clad in rosy handmade tiles with a distinctly anatomical vibe. “People call it ‘the brain room,’ ” he says. The only unfinished space is the master bath, which Marcelis plans to envelop in a luscious, pigmented polyester resin she often uses in her work—though the details are still at issue (“Paul wants mint green and I want a warm caramel, like skin,” she explains).

A view into the plywood-lined storage room.
A view into the plywood-lined storage room. Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

“What Sabine does is very pure and elegant,” says Maria Foerlev, whose Copenhagen gallery, Etage Projects, has represented the designer’s work since 2012, a year after her graduation from Design Academy Eindhoven. “But she always wants to create a relationship between the piece and the viewer. Like her Soap table of resin—people just want to touch it. Or one of her gradient mirrors. Is it a hole in the wall? It’s hard to tell. You really have to look.”

The designer’s obsessions with industrial materials and manufacturing have taken her down some of the same conceptual rabbit holes that enticed the Southern California Light and Space artists, who made surface perfection a proxy for transcendence—and perceptual unease. Despite their seductive colors and surfaces, Marcelis’s creations raise as many questions as they answer.

A few years ago, her work caught the attention of Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, a partner at OMA, and since then she’s collaborated with the firm on a variety of projects, including an illusionistic mirrored entry for Berlin’s KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens) department store and the sharp-edged interior of the Repossi jewelry boutique on Paris’s Place Vendôme. A number of fashion brands have come calling as well, among them Céline, Givenchy and Salle Privée.

Marcelis designed the glass table and, with Cournet, the stacked-foam chairs.
Marcelis designed the glass table and, with Cournet, the stacked-foam chairs. Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

For Isabel Marant, she assisted with a new retail concept—“a whole group of designers working together,” she says—that debuted in Amsterdam this spring and will roll out internationally in the coming months. Over the summer, Marcelis partnered with Burberry and Opening Ceremony on store installations in New York and Los Angeles that stretched the classic Burberry plaid like taffy into translucent panels for framing and display; in December, her first project with Fendi will debut at Design Miami to mark the 10th anniversary of the brand’s participation at the fair and of its Peekaboo bag.

Though the pace of fashion work can be punishing, Marcelis relishes the freedom it offers. “Something that works as display could be almost anything, as long as a bag can sit on top of it,” she says. “It’s a nice way to experiment.” Clocking crazy hours in her studio, a 10-minute drive from the loft, the self-described “production nerd” delves deeper and deeper into process—a way of working that’s influenced, she says, by her teenage experiences with competitive sports.

BRIGHT AS YELLOW In the guest room, Marcelis’s Voie light with a Thomas Trum wall painting and a FOS stool.
BRIGHT AS YELLOW In the guest room, Marcelis’s Voie light with a Thomas Trum wall painting and a FOS stool. Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

From the ages of 17 to 21, Marcelis trained to be a professional snowboarder, living back-to-back winters in New Zealand and California’s Sierra Nevadas. “Every day I would be in the park, trying to get a trick, land a jump, do rails—you’re constantly trying to achieve a goal. It’s a mixture of adrenaline and determination,” she says. “I was never really good enough to earn my living with it, but it was all I really wanted to do.” In 2006, she quit the sport and went back to school, first to study economics, then industrial design.

“Now, looking back, it feels like someone else’s life,” she says. What has endured is a passion for “figuring out how to do the impossible. There’s an idea, and it has to be that. But it doesn’t work. So how can you make it work?”

PALMS AWAY A pink resin planter, designed by Marcelis, with a Cycas revoluta that Marcelis likes because it looks “like a Lego palm tree.”
PALMS AWAY A pink resin planter, designed by Marcelis, with a Cycas revoluta that Marcelis likes because it looks “like a Lego palm tree.” Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

As the loft came together, the couple felt the need to mediate Cournet’s precious open space with some softer, more intimate elements. When friends come over, Marcelis can slide several floor-length theatrical draperies around a track in the ceiling to create an ad hoc room centered on the sofa.

Wiping a few pastry crumbs from her hands, she walks over to another column of fabric and draws the moss-green velvet around her until she’s cocooned inside an oval: instant projection room. Beside it is a curtain of silver foil enclosing a platform bed. The arrangement looks a little claustrophobic, but Marcelis explains that she and Cournet like to beam movies onto the ceiling before going to sleep, adding that “the space changes to manipulate the light.”

Apartment Tour: An Ethereal Home in Rotterdam
Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger for WSJ. Magazine

Not every design problem is so gratifying to solve. Today Marcelis is deciding whether to fix her car, which is in the shop, or buy a new one. Not being able to move quickly between home, studio, fabricators, collaborators and suppliers with a trunkload of prototypes and samples is becoming a major inconvenience. A few new projects have her feeling stretched, even with four employees helping out in the studio.

“My goal for this year is to focus more and do less,” she says. She’d love to work with a theater company sometime on scenography. Until then, she’s trying out new ideas at home. •

More from WSJ. Magazine

With No Nobel Prize in Literature This Year, Another Award Steps In

The three finalists for the New Academy’s prize in literature, created in the absence of a Nobel Prize this year, from left: Maryse Condé, Kim Thúy and Neil Gaiman.
The three finalists for the New Academy’s prize in literature, created in the absence of a Nobel Prize this year, from left: Maryse Condé, Kim Thúy and Neil Gaiman. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images;Jean Francois; Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP

In a year when the Swedish Academy won’t name a Nobel laureate in literature, a pop-up nonprofit called the New Academy is aiming to fill the gap.

On Oct. 12 in Stockholm, on the heels of the various Nobel announcements, the New Academy’s jury, led by publishing-industry veteran Ann Pålsson, will name the winner of the New Prize in Literature. The organization sprang up after the Swedish Academy said in May that it would postpone the Nobel in literature for a year.

The New Academy stuck to the Nobel calendar, in which winners are named in October and receive their awards in December, but it departed from tradition by opening up much of its decision-making. Early in the summer, librarians across Sweden nominated 47 authors, including Don DeLillo and Elena Ferrante.

Then the public joined in and after more than 30,000 online votes, the list was winnowed to four finalists: Maryse Condé, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami and Kim Thúy. Ms. Pålsson and her three fellow jurors, all eminences in Swedish arts and letters, will choose the winner.

Haruki Murakami was named a fourth finalist for the New Academy prize but withdrew from consideration.
Haruki Murakami was named a fourth finalist for the New Academy prize but withdrew from consideration. Photo: Reuters

Mr. Murakami, the Japanese novelist known for books such as “Kafka on the Shore” and “Norwegian Wood,” withdrew his name from consideration.

Ms. Condé, an 81-year-old academic and author born on Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, broke out as a novelist in the 1980s with “Segu,” a saga that sweeps through African history.

Ms. Thúy, 50, was born in Vietnam and as a young girl fled the strife-torn country for Canada. That journey has informed her three novels, including her debut “Ru,” published in 2009.

“My knees got weak,” said Ms. Thúy when she learned she was a finalist, though she plans to be sound asleep when the winner is announced. “It would be very wrong for me to win,” she said, adding that her three books aren’t equivalent to “one book of anyone else on that list.”

Mr. Gaiman, 57, a Briton, is known for his graphic novels (the “Sandman” series) as well as books for children (“Coraline”) and adults (“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”). After learning through Twitter both that he was on the long list and then a finalist, he also set hopes low, saying that simply making the cut was thrilling.

“It’s a hugely nice thing to be placed in company of 47 fantastic writers from around the world,” he said, mentioning Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “What I really liked was that they were getting librarians involved in the process.”

The Swedish Academy canceled this year’s Nobel in literature as it attempts to recover from a scandal over allegations of sexual assault, saying it would award two prizes next year. The man at the center of the scandal, Jean-Claude Arnault, was found guilty of rape on Monday and sentenced to two years in prison.

This isn’t the first year without a Nobel Prize in literature. The Swedish Academy has awarded them since 1901, but none during seven years around the first and second World Wars.

News of this year’s cancellation dismayed many in Sweden’s publishing and artistic circles. “We love the Nobel Prize, and we were so sad when they said it wasn’t to be awarded,” Ms. Pålsson said.

Alexandra Pascalidou, a journalist and writer in Sweden, marshaled dozens of volunteers in forming the New Academy, drawing up a website and spreading the word on social media.

“I thought we have to do something new,” Ms. Pascalidou said. “So, I called the do-ers I know.” In June, she enlisted Ms. Pålsson, who had edited Ms. Pascalidou’s most recent book, to head the jury.

To cover expenses and raise a monetary prize (the literature Nobel laureate receives more than $1 million), the New Academy has enlisted sponsors, crowdfunding, and is selling T-shirts, hoodies and iPhone cases. The group’s Kickstarter page states a goal of 250,000 Swedish krona (about $28,000) and thus far has drawn more than $9,000 in pledges.

It plans to shut down after the award ceremony and celebrations in December. At that point, Ms. Pålsson said, “I think we’ll be pretty happy and tired.”

Whether the prize will generate the buzz that the Nobel does is an open question.

“I don’t know that I would expect that we will see the jump in sales that we would expect to see from a Nobel win,” said Rachel Cass, buying and inventory manager at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.

The New Academy prize is unlikely to exert the same heft as the Nobel, said Jake Reiss, founder of the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, Ala., which sells only new hardbacks signed by the author. He has some signed Gaimans on hand but nothing by Ms. Condé or Ms. Thúy, he said.

Still, he applauded the New Academy’s effort as better than nothing. “Heaven forbid, if there were no Super Bowl or the World Series, if the players went on strike or whatever,” he said, “it wouldn’t be the same—but that’s all you got.”

Write to Brenda Cronin at brenda.cronin@wsj.com

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The Luxury Hotels America’s Wealthy and Powerful Call Home

After more than a year, finance executive Robert Wolfangel, his wife Jaime and their cats Tiki and Cody have just moved out of their Philadelphia hotel room.

It wasn’t a depressing existence: Their place at Roost Apartment Hotel was a roughly 750-square foot one bedroom with a full kitchen, herringbone floors and midcentury modern furniture. After they finally bought a home, the couple was able to move on two weeks’ notice.

“I…

Can This Smart Mug Make Your Coffee Better?

JOE NOT-TOO-COOL Ember’s app displays real-time temperatures and notifies you when your coffee is perfect.
JOE NOT-TOO-COOL Ember’s app displays real-time temperatures and notifies you when your coffee is perfect. Photo: Joshua Scott for The Wall Street Journal

ACCORDING TO MY extremely unscientific, improvised testing methods, it seems that coffee lives in the Goldilocks Zone—not too hot, not too cold—for only about 8 minutes. Typically, after pouring a cup, I sip it tentatively, anxiously, until it reaches my preferred temperature, then gulp the rest down the way I chug Gatorade after a 5K run so I don’t waste its peak.

Apparently there’s a better way. The Ember ceramic smart mug ($80, ember.com) comes equipped with a built-in microprocessor and a dual-zone heating element at its base that lets you control it via smartphone. This discreet bit of tech lets you handily dial up or down the coffee’s temperature and keep it stable for about an hour (until the battery fades), which is right on target according to experts.

“Coffee degrades after an hour. Period,” said Paul Schlader, co-founder of New York City’s Birch Coffee chain. “You can’t stop that. But a heater can help prolong a bit of that sweet spot.”

The coffee’s temperature is measured using three internal sensors and is displayed in real time on the mug’s companion app, where you can customize preset temperatures or use theirs—126 for a latte, 130 for coffee, 132 for tea.

“Most coffees from different regions are going to be represented well in that space,” explained Mr. Schlader. “But the optimal temperature for flavor, aftertaste, the correct amount of acidity and body is about 135 degrees.”

For coffee drinkers who don’t enjoy feeling the burn, Ember’s pricier travel mug option ($150) has a “rapid cooling system” that pulls heat out of the cup to cool it more quickly so you’re not left waiting.

I recklessly pushed the Ember and my caffeine intake to the limits one Sunday, testing cups at varying degrees from the mug’s max of 145 F—not recommended—to its low of 120 F, where you begin to see how the quality of a brew stands up, according to Mr. Schlader.

Each time the Ember performed. However, getting bombarded with persistent smartphone notifications about updated temps and the need to charge my mug got old very quickly. I don’t need yet another device distracting me from my work—not when I have all this important science to do.

More in Gear & Gadgets

New Tamagotchis, and the Trials of Digital Parenthood in 2018

PET PROJECTS Beyond a flashy paint job, the new 2018 model differs little from the 1997 Tamagotchi—but that's part of the kick.
PET PROJECTS Beyond a flashy paint job, the new 2018 model differs little from the 1997 Tamagotchi—but that’s part of the kick. Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

AS I WAS recently fiddling with my new Tamagotchi, a glinting rehash of the “original virtual reality pet” from 1997, I couldn’t help but think back to my bustling sixth grade lunchroom. My 2018 pink leopard-print egg-shaped plastic plaything, which would have been the preteen status symbol among my friends, looked and operated just like the pale blue one that seemed permanently clipped to my hip or backpack as a kid.

Developed by Bandai in Japan, the little dancing blobs that sprout into animals living on LCD screens the size of watch faces have evolved since their ’90s days as needy digital “pets” children loved to nurture. Today, you can even find high-tech versions for the Nintendo DS. But the one in my hand, the latest nostalgia play for millennials, replicates the simplistic first-gen edition, with the same basic software and ear-piercing beeps for attention.

Three rubbery unmarked buttons let you control your Tamagotchi’s universe. Toggle through menus to give it a snack or meal when its food icon lights up, exercise it with childish games, nurse it to health and tediously clean up after virtual steaming messes it leaves behind. Neglect it for too long, and an angel swoops down to take your heartbroken Tamagotchi, forcing you to begrudgingly push reset.

“My favorite part was taking care of something,” recalled Nicole Montano, 25, an artist manager who, as a kid in Eatontown, N.J., was enraptured with her pink Tamagotchi. “You got to check in throughout the day and see what it needed. It was the electronic way of taking care of a baby doll as a kid.”

My replay didn’t go so well. As an adult struggling to feed it or play with it enough (and keep it quiet so co-workers wouldn’t revolt), I remembered how demanding a budding Tamagotchi can be. As a skull icon flashed above my gremlin, foreshadowing its demise, I was oddly stressed. Maybe I was a bad Tamagotchi parent even as a grown-up.

“There’s a pause button if you really need to take a break,” teased Tara Badie, a company rep at Bandai after I detailed my struggle. “Millennials today are a bit busier than they were back in school.”

Sorry little guy. It was a fun reminder, but I’ll stick to houseplants. $20, bandai.com

More from Gear & Gadgets

The War of the Los Angeles Megamansions

The West Hollywood home of Nile Niami, the builder behind “The One,” a $500 million house under construction in Bel Air, and “Opus,” a $68 million entry in Beverly Hills.
The West Hollywood home of Nile Niami, the builder behind “The One,” a $500 million house under construction in Bel Air, and “Opus,” a $68 million entry in Beverly Hills. Photo: Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Bruce Makowsky knew exactly what he wanted: a gigantic photograph of a statuesque blonde clad in a black gown and standing on the trunk of a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead, a $500,000 coupe with interiors swathed in Hermès leather. In her hands would be a chainsaw branded with Rolls Royce emblems.

“Give a beautiful blonde a chainsaw, But not any chainsaw, give her a chainsaw with Rolls Royce emblems,” chuckles Shawn Elliott, one of Mr. Makowsky’s real-estate agents, as he gazes at the resulting photo. “That’s Bruce’s mind in a nutshell.”

The picture is one of many pieces of art commissioned by Mr. Makowsky for the purpose of decorating his goliath Los Angeles spec home, now on the market for $188 million. An imposing man who made his first fortune selling affordable leather bags on home shopping channel QVC, Mr. Makowsky has spent millions on custom furniture and accessories from the likes of Fendi, Roberto Cavalli and Louis Vuitton.


Bel-Air’s Billionaire Megamansion

Seeking $188 million, the spec home built by Bruce Makowsky comes with a helipad, five bars, four-lane bowling alley and a crocodile skin-lined elevator.

Former handbag designer-turned-developer Bruce Makowsky at his latest project: a $188 million Bel-Air spec house named Billionaire.
Associated Press

At a time when many believe the ultra high-end real-estate market has peaked, a handful of colorful characters are forging on ahead, building some of the most lavish and expensive homes this country has ever seen. These Los Angeles developers are constructing modern-day palaces that serve as monuments to excess, with candy rooms, commercial-sized movie theaters, helipads and hair salons. The bet: Their over-the-top creations will outrun the market and sell for hundreds of millions—even up to $500 million for the priciest home hitting the block.

Like Mr. Makowsky, most of these gunslingers didn’t start in real estate. Directly adjacent to Mr. Makowsky’s Bel Air project is another mammoth spec home. Asking $180 million, it is the brainchild of Raj Kanodia, a celebrated plastic surgeon who specializes in rhinoplasties and counts Kim Kardashian as a client.

More in Mansion

Scott Gillen, who is building an $85 million spec mansion in Malibu, was a decade earlier directing commercials for brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. And Nile Niami, the builder behind “The One,” a $500 million house under construction in Bel Air, and “Opus,” a $68 million entry in Beverly Hills, did makeup special effects for low-budget movies and then ran his own company producing movies like “The Patriot,” a feature starring Steven Seagal as a doctor who must race to find a cure for a deadly virus.


An $85 Million Low-Key Malibu Mansion

Real-estate developer Scott Gillen said his roughly 15,500-square-foot spec home is less over-the-top than comparably priced properties in Los Angeles.

Director-turned-real-estate developer Scott Gillen in his $85 million Malibu spec house.
Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Niami, 50, recently offered a tour of his personal West Hollywood home. Sporting sunglasses, a $55,000 Corum Tourbillon watch and a deep tan, he says he has just returned from an ultraexclusive celeb-studded fasting retreat and dropped 11 pounds for his coming trip to Burning Man.

Walking around his roughly 10,000-square-foot pad, Mr. Niami shows off his “bitchin” 1970s-inspired black leather bed and his “retro and manly” collection of vintage Playboy magazine covers. Mr. Niami says he was inspired in part to enter real estate by a “dude on TV” who did infomercials on buying and flipping homes.

Mr. Niami seems to revel in attention, and even considered his own reality show. “I had a friend who created a pilot that was really good called ‘The Mansion Maker,’” he says. “It was me going around all these houses and yelling at people…. I got a call from my investor at the time and he was like, ‘You’re out of your f— mind. You’re not going to go on TV. If you do, I’m not funding one more house.”


A Los Angeles Developer’s ‘Manly’ Mansion

The West Hollywood home of Nile Niami has design details like a 1970s-inspired platform bed and a 24-foot golden giraffe sculpture.

Developer Nile Niami, a former producer of movies like ‘The Patriot’ starring Steven Seagal, poses outside his personal home in West Hollywood.
Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

The personalities that thrive in this world tend to be bold and bombastic—with an appetite for risk.

Mr. Makowsky jumped straight into the expensive business of building ultra high-end homes. One of his earlier projects was the subject of a 2014 bidding war between Minecraft creator Markus Persson, who was fresh off selling his company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Mr. Persson won at $70 million.

While Mr. Makowsky says he is building his latest creation with no debt, many of the other builders have taken on large loans to finance their projects. Property records show that Dr. Kanodia, 71, took a loan out from Bank of Internet for his house earlier this year, for instance. Meanwhile, First Credit Bank of Los Angeles has backed Mr. Niami’s $500 million mega-project, as has an unnamed Canadian investment partner.

“It’s a crazy business; you don’t do it unless you’re a little nuts,” Mr. Makowsky says.

Mr. Gillen, 58, says that spec developers are generally shooting for a return on investment of about 50%, though more typically he’ll get closer to 30%. “If I’m going to invest $20 million, I need 10 million bucks. If I’m listing a house at $100 million, I’ve got to have enough meat on it that, if something goes wrong, I can slice $25 million off the top,” he says.

A bedroom and bathroom in an $85 million Malibu mansion being built by Scott Gillen. Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Niami, who says he goes over budget with construction “every single time,” admits that he finds the pressure so intense that he’s launching a fast-casual organic rolled pizza chain in 2019 as a secondary income stream and a needed distraction.

“It’s like, my God, look what the mortgage payments are, look how long it’s taking,” he says. “I cannot keep doing this at this level with this many houses so often. It’s too much stress. My girlfriend’s a yoga instructor. She’s got me doing yoga and drinking yerba mate shit.”

Dr. Kanodia, who was raised Hindu, makes the pilgrimage every morning to his $180 million spec house, which is almost completed, from his personal mansion across the street. He meditates and lays flower petals on a small shrine to the Hindu gods Ganesh and Lakshmi. “I have a very strong relationship and belief in God,” Dr. Kanodia says. “I use that as my strength…It’s sort of an insurance policy against all odds.”


A Plastic Surgeon’s $180 Million Spec Home in Bel-Air

Built by Raj Kanodia, who lives across the street, the property comes with a floating staircase, a 2,000-bottle wine room and a gym designed by celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak.

Raj Kanodia, a prominent plastic surgeon, poses in the garden of his $180 million spec house in Los Angeles.
Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Dr. Kanodia’s friends and clients, many of whom are financiers and developers, advised him against the project, he says. “’You’re way out of your league,’” they told me. “I know I am. But the more challenging it became, the more resolute I was. I can’t face the world and say that I failed.”

Rivalries have inevitably emerged as this small group of builders compete for the same pool of billionaires. In Mr. Makowsky’s rented construction office—a mansion once owned by Elizabeth Taylor—Mr. Elliott has pinned to the wall a list of the world’s billionaires with their telephone numbers and a check mark to denote whether or not he’s successfully made contact.

Mr. Gillen calls his home, which was built on the former site of a mock Scottish castle, “architectural” and less over-the-top than other homes. It has a gym, a wine room, a cigar room and a $1.5 million teak staircase. He laughs about some of the other offerings on the market: “It’s like, why not have a room to hold all my socks?”

Similarly, Dr. Kanodia, whose project has a floating staircase, a dramatic limestone facade and an herb garden, says he finds the other homes too opulent. “They’re great but they don’t have a soul,” he says. “I wanted to create simple elegance.”

A living area in Raj Kanodia’s $180 million spec home in Bel Air. Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Dr. Kanodia’s “house is beautiful but it’s a Prius,” responds Mr. Elliott, Mr. Makowsky’s agent. “We have three movie theaters… I’m not trying to say anything derogatory to Raj, but Raj’s is a room which is a box with a projector pinned to the ceiling and a screen that looks like you could buy it at Walmart. This is Hollywood.”

Mr. Makowsky’s $188 million house, known as “Billionaire,” is widely regarded as the showiest. “It’s almost a little overwhelming,” Mr. Makowsky concedes. “But my job is to touch every one of your senses. If you’re fortunate enough to have that kind of money, your home should be your kingdom.” On a recent tour, Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” blared in the background. Mr. Elliott, who was conducting the house tour while Mr. Makowsky was in Italy, said that Mr. Makowsky has turned down $2 million a month in rent from a Saudi family, because he wants to keep the property “a virgin house.”

The showiest house mantle may shift, however, once Mr. Niami’s “The One” comes on the market. With 20 bedrooms, a V.I.P. nightclub and jellyfish aquariums, it is asking $500 million—almost five times the Los Angeles record.

Write to Katherine Clarke at katherine.clarke@wsj.com

Appeared in the September 7, 2018, print edition as ‘War of the Megamansions!.’

A Day in the Life of Silicon Valley Power Player Kirsten Green

The bustling commercial stretch of Hayes Street between Franklin and Gough in San Francisco is a testament to Kirsten Green’s instincts. First, there’s the Warby Parker store—the 45-year-old venture capitalist was an early investor in the now ubiquitous eyewear company in 2010. Then there are the offices of another of her investments, the prescription acne treatment start-up Curology, which sit just above what’s soon to be an Away store (Green’s partner, Eurie Kim, led the seed deal for the purveyor of suitcases in 2015).

Although…

A Visionary Photographer Reaches a Career Pinnacle

FOCAL POINT The photographer Thomas Struth at his studio in Berlin.
FOCAL POINT The photographer Thomas Struth at his studio in Berlin. Photo: Christopher Anderson for WSJ. Magazine

Among people who know him well, the German photographer Thomas Struth is renowned for the intense focus he brings to every detail of his work, starting with the way he creates a single photograph. In some cases, he waits for hours under the hood of a large-format camera for the right moment to take a shot, then sits there longer still for the next right moments. Later, he carefully examines each image and, before making his selects, often ventures to the site to shoot again. He’s likely to have spent weeks beforehand studying visual and art historical source material.

Recently Struth has taken a similarly obsessive approach to his exhibitions, designing the architecture and refining each hanging in situ. When he walks into his career survey, which opened in May at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, he immediately begins talking about the building’s disquieting origins. Although the gallery has been an avant-garde stronghold for decades, it was initially constructed to promote Adolf Hitler’s vision of great Teutonic art, opening in 1937 the day before the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, which was just down the street. As a 62-year-old German artist, Struth needed to make sure his show had “a correct relationship to German history,” he explains. “Everybody says, ‘This space has really good proportions.’ I think, Yeah, that’s true, but is that the first thing you would say about the atmosphere?”

A work in progress from Struth’s new series, which will go on view at New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery in November.
A work in progress from Struth’s new series, which will go on view at New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery in November. Photo: Work in progress. © Thomas Struth

Struth could have opened the show with one of the lush, monumentally sized museum photographs for which he’s best known. Made between 1989 and 2005, they depict visitors gathering before artworks in the halls of the Louvre, London’s National Gallery and other major institutions. He considered using one of his newer, wow-inducing science pictures, taken in nuclear fusion laboratories, factories, hospitals and the like, shot in such intensely rendered detail that it’s hard to figure out exactly what you’re seeing. He also experimented with something more playful: a gorgeous portrait of adults and children clustered before a giant aquarium full of fish.

Instead, Struth opened with something far grittier: the urban streetscapes that he first began making in the 1970s as a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and has continued in cities around the world for four decades. Shot with a large-format camera placed squarely in the center of the street, they aim to convey something essential about each locale. Struth calls the series Unconscious Places, because of his belief, he explains, in “the undercurrent of a shared, unconscious energy that evokes some kind of atmosphere in the architecture.”

When viewers enter the Munich show, they’re confronted with a row of East Berlin streetscapes, captured soon after the wall came down. In his blunt fashion, Struth says, “In a way, what you see is what you got because of this,” nodding toward the gallery’s spare, neoclassically proportioned central hallway, where Hitler once spoke before rapt crowds.

As for the main gallery, he bisected it with a different sort of wall: a vitrine filled with selections from his personal archives, like the big band records he obsessed over as a teenager, when he played alto sax in his high school jazz band, and the surrealistic paintings and oil stick drawings he made before turning to photography in his early 20s. He also includes the long-ago project that unconsciously steered him toward his well-known series of intimate family portraits: a 1982 collaboration with a Düsseldorf psychoanalyst who used family photos in treatment.

Schlossstrasse, Wittenberg 1991.
Schlossstrasse, Wittenberg 1991. Photo: Schlossstrasse, Wittenberg 1991. Silver gelatin print. 68.0 x 84.0 cm. © Thomas Struth

“I hope it expresses the reasons for my work,” Struth says of the archive. “And also a bit of vulnerability.”

One of Germany’s most highly regarded photographers, Struth can afford to be somewhat vulnerable: He’s at the peak of his career—and at a new stage in his life. Ten years ago, he married the Hawaii-born writer Tara Bray Smith, and soon after they moved away from Düsseldorf, the place where Struth spent much of his childhood and later made his career, to build a life together in Berlin. They now have a child, Alexej, who’s 7. Struth works from a glorious Berlin studio, and his career has clearly reached a new level. The Munich show, Thomas Struth: Figure Ground, which is his largest survey to date, has been extended through January 7—and it’s just one highlight of several current and upcoming Struth shows.

On November 5, his exhibition Nature & Politics opens at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the final leg of a tour that began in March 2016 at Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, and traveled to Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and Houston’s Moody Center for the Arts, all in very different configurations that Struth designed himself.

“Thomas constructed the architecture, which meant he also constructed the narrative,” says Tobia Bezzola, the Folkwang’s director. “He had a lot of fun creating various juxtapositions and confrontations.”

Nature & Politics focuses on Struth’s science photographs, made over the past decade or so, which touch on society’s many uses for technology, whether it be energy production, robotics or the machines that keep bodies tethered to life during surgery. Alongside urban landscapes shot in places like Israel, South Korea and Argentina, and fantasy landscapes shot in Disneyland, the pictures seem to explore the reach and limits of human progress.

WIDE ANGLE Struth with his dog, Gabby, in his office. “He has a big life force in the sense that he’s so interested in life,” says gallerist Marian Goodman.
WIDE ANGLE Struth with his dog, Gabby, in his office. “He has a big life force in the sense that he’s so interested in life,” says gallerist Marian Goodman. Photo: Christopher Anderson for WSJ. Magazine

“He’s navigating this delicate line between the chaotic nature of the subject matter and what looks good as a beautiful, precise, meticulously composed photograph,” Eric Lutz, a photography curator at Saint Louis, says of the science photos. Every time you look, Lutz adds, you see something different: “I think that’s a courageous thing for a photographer to do, not to want to define the meaning of a photograph.”

Struth is also in a reflective mood, judging from the work in his upcoming New York solo show, opening November 14 at Marian Goodman Gallery, which has represented him since 1989. As well as showing new science photos, of subjects like a Siemens switchgear plant, captured from a perspective that suggests a giant, ominous playground, he will unveil a brand-new series that owes a clear debt to Renaissance painting: still lifes of deceased animals, including a ram, a tiny wildcat and a group of birds. Shot in available light in a way that brings out the soft drifts of feathers and tender tufts of fur, the creatures seem halfway between death and life, reminiscent of medieval memento mori while also appearing strangely new.

Aquarium, Atlanta 2013.
Aquarium, Atlanta 2013. Photo: Aquarium, Atlanta 2013. Chromogenic print. 207.5 x 357.0 cm. © Thomas Struth

A few days after visiting the Munich exhibition, Struth shows off these pictures in his Berlin studio, a sunny space overlooking the Spree, and speaks of his desire to depict the creatures in a beautiful, dignified fashion. “I’m interested in the idea of surrender,” he says. “Once you die, all the circus that you proactively design, the theater, comes to a full stop.”

In some sense, when Struth speaks of the circus, he’s referring to his own life. Over the past 10 years, the number of shows he’s been asked to participate in has tripled, and his studio staff has grown to keep up with the demands on his time, as well as his constantly expanding range of interests. “He’s always been led by his curiosity,” says gallerist Marian Goodman, who has known Struth for nearly three decades. “He doesn’t have the desire to do the same thing over and over again.” As Struth’s installations have grown more elaborate, so have his catalogs, and he has recently begun doing all but his largest prints in-house. (“That’s the fun part,” says his longtime studio manager, Anne Caroline Müller.) Yet to make an artwork, Struth often says, one must stop the carousel and sit still. “That’s when you see or hear something.”

In this way and in others, the memento mori are clearly somewhat personal. Struth’s parents died some years ago—his father, a lawyer, judge and bank manager, in 2003 and his mother, a potter, in 2009—and he finds himself reflecting upon them frequently, especially now that he has a child himself. “It becomes clearer what they were for me,” he says.

Schaltwerk 1, Berlin 2016, also part of the Goodman show
Schaltwerk 1, Berlin 2016, also part of the Goodman show Photo: Schaltwerk 1, Berlin 2016. Chromogenic print. 198.3 x 371.2 cm. © Thomas Struth

Struth has also been considering his own mortality. “Once the [Marian Goodman] exhibition opens, I will be 63,” he says later, while going through the new pictures on his computer. “I will be in the last quarter of my life.” As he talks about the images, it’s clear that he is thinking of the memento mori’s traditional roots: as a reminder of death that encourages one to savor life. Struth intends the pictures to be “like punches,” he says. “Death as a wake-up call.”

I’m interested in the idea of surrender.

—Thomas Struth

Together with Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff, Struth is considered a protégé of the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their pictures of German industrial architecture. In fact, he was part of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf’s first official photography class, which the Bechers taught. Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, feels that Struth diverges from his cohort in a crucial sense. “He’s different from, say, Thomas Ruff or Andreas Gursky, in his analytical approach to image making,” he says. “In some ways he comes closer to the Bechers but also goes much further away from them.”

The first photographs Struth became known for were his Manhattan streetscapes, shot during a 1978 residency at P.S. 1. Because of this work, he has something of a reputation in architectural circles, too. British architect David Chipperfield, a good friend, says he used Struth’s Unconscious Places series in his lectures long before they met. And he is now designing a four-building compound for Struth and his family, in the countryside outside Berlin. “Architecture is always about spectacular single buildings,” Chipperfield says, “but Thomas’s photography is about the qualities that come out of the normal streets and normal buildings and places where we live.”

Curved Wave Tank, The University of Edinburgh, 2010.
Curved Wave Tank, The University of Edinburgh, 2010. Photo: Curved Wave Tank, The University of Edinburgh, 2010. Chromogenic print. 208.6 x 153.0 cm. © Thomas Struth

Struth actually entered the Kunstakademie in 1973 intent on becoming a painter. His first teacher there was Gerhard Richter, and some point to that legacy in his work today. (Although the two aren’t especially close, Struth has photographed Richter’s family twice.) “Richter was the other crucial early influence,” says Bezzola, who also co-curated Struth’s last retrospective, which toured Europe for three years. “Each of Thomas’s photographs is very much about the construction of the image, about design, about drawing. It’s more like an old master painting.”

That’s obvious when Struth sits down at his computer to explain how he creates the memento mori. He arrived at the subject through his science photographs, when a contact at a Berlin hospital introduced him to a zoological institute that examines dead animals. Now Struth is notified whenever a creature arrives there. He usually has a few hours to take photographs before the autopsy starts.

To prepare for the series, which he began last fall, Struth researched the subject intensively, combing the internet to see “what pictorial material exists already,” he says, asking himself, “Is that the sort of picture that I would like to make or work with? Then I reject it and say, This would appear in a veterinary magazine. This is something I’ve seen already.”

Illustrating his point, Struth flips through a vast number of images on his monitor: X-rays, MRIs, old master paintings, BBC nature photographs. His interest in the subject may have been sparked, he says, by an Albrecht Dürer watercolor of a bird’s wing he saw at Madrid’s Museo del Prado in 2005. “It was very small but so extremely arresting,” he recalls. “It says something about respect, for the animal and for life, about spending the time to make this and studying this phenomenon.”

Louvre 2, Paris 1989.
Louvre 2, Paris 1989. Photo: Louvre 2, Paris 1989. Chromogenic print. 221.5 x 181.0 cm. © Thomas Struth

Although Struth often uses large-format cameras and film, about five years ago he switched to medium-format digital cameras for more intimate situations, which means he can study the images he takes on a monitor. When using film, he makes his selection with contact sheets, choosing which pictures to print and then picking one to be used and numbered for his catalogue raisonné. He keeps banks of file drawers filled with these images, all listed by category—“portraits,” “landscapes,” “museums” and so on.

The day after showing off the photos in his studio, Struth and one of his assistants, Vanessa Enders, pay one of their periodic visits to the zoological institute to work out details for the next shoot. They need to figure out how to handle larger animals and revisit how best to work within the parameters of the space and its lighting.

The Horsfield Family, London 1989.
The Horsfield Family, London 1989. Photo: The Horsfield Family, London 1989. Chromogenic print. 90.0 x 104.5 cm. © Thomas Struth

It’s hard to believe that the white-tiled, wet-floored autopsy room, lit with overhead halogen lights and lined with white rubber robes on hooks, could produce any image that wasn’t depressingly clinical. But Struth’s eyes see it differently.

“That’s the best natural light,” he says, indicating the long windows unobstructed by trees at the far end of the room, likening their effect to a softbox, a photographic lighting device that creates a diffuse glow. “You can see the shadows are not sharp,” he explains. He and Enders decide to shoot there next time.

Then, just as he’s leaving, Struth pulls out his iPhone to capture that light. As he gestures Enders to the side and scoots a bucket out of the way, the room turns quiet. In that instant, it’s clear that this is the key ingredient Struth requires to make a photograph: slowing down the circus of the world long enough to find that perfect moment of stillness. There’s a click, and he smiles broadly. “Gut,” he says. “Danke schön.”