In the 2010s, when homes began to double as backdrops for social media posts, the branded candle, or evidence thereof, became ubiquitous. Maybe it was a Le Labo Santal 26 burning serenely alongside a neat stack of fashion books. Maybe it was an already-spent Diptyque variety, the empty glass holder now filled with makeup brushes and perched on the corner of a bathroom sink. Now modern classics, these candles are still around, and still smell as good as ever, but there’s a newer crop of options that are, well, weirder.
These candles, which register as (affordable) art objects and are often intended as such, focus on form, color and process. Take Hannah Jewett’s Sculptural Candles, with curvaceous, abstract shapes that morph once lit, or Carl Durkow’s playfully stacked pillars, some of which recall the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The New York-based artist Janie Korn used to make ceramic figurines but found herself wanting to create something that felt more immediate and interactive; she now makes hand-painted wax candles modeled after Wendy Williams, Ally McBeal and a bottle of Kewpie mayonnaise. “When you light a candle,” she says, “there’s an act of performance.” And one of depletion — unlike with most sculpture, you need not live with a candle for long.
Candles modeled on everyday items — a lamp, a bunch of grapes — have an uncanny quality that seems fitting for our strange and digitally steeped times. But if these candles are designed to make you do a double take, they’re also meant to make you smile. “They bring joy and confusion,” says Samantha Margherita, a Los Angeles-based set designer who last year found herself with less work and more time. She began making molds of things she had lying around the house, which she would fill with pastel-colored wax. Her first finished candles, which she released under the brand name Altra Object, were of a pale pink bitten apple and a neon-yellow pear.
Margherita still makes every one of her candles by hand, building on a craft tradition that spans continents and centuries. At her Los Angeles store Maison Modulare, Chrys Wong sells Mexican Bouquet candles, which are typically given to a soon-to-be bride at the time of proposal. At a recent pop-up, a customer asked Wong, who works with a number of families of makers in Mexico’s Oaxaca region, whether the candles were 3-D printed. Not even a little bit. Each family has its own technique, but the basic process is always an intricate one: Large chunks of beeswax sourced from the Chiapas region are first melted over a fire. After being formed into discs, the wax is set on tree branches to bleach in the sun for around 15 days, then shaped by hand into the style’s signature florets before being attached to pillar candles.
Last year’s pandemic-induced lockdowns, during which so many were looking for special if low-stakes pieces to refresh suddenly all-too-familiar spaces, almost certainly helped spur demand for the arty candle — Korn noticed an uptick in orders, and Margherita’s creations sold out almost as soon as she listed them. In any case, another fall is upon us, and a quirky-cozy candle might just do you good.
At top, from left: The Waxness Leafy Strawberry candles (set of 2), about $10, etsy.com; Ri-Ri-Ku Mini Lamp candle in Seafoam/Peach, $32, shopririku.com; Secret Scents of Ella Parker Mahogany Torso candle, $25, secretscentsofella.com; Crying Clover Candles Tower Mother & Child candles, $108, cryingclovercandles.org.