Monday, July 15, 2024

The Best Candles for Dinner Party Tablescapes: Modern Taper Candles

When Sierra Steifman founded the Floral Society in 2018, her business was largely dedicated to providing people with an accessible way to learn about arranging flowers, gardening, and entertaining. Alongside pots, saucers, and gardening tools, Steifman sold a small selection of taper candles, a callback to the candle store her mother owned while Steifman was growing up in New Hampshire. In her own business, she sometimes used tapers in the table displays she designed — “candles,” as she notes, “have a big storyline in tablescapes.”

But over time, Steifman noticed something: sales of the company’s taper candles, which are dipped and molded by hand, were taking off. “Unknowingly, we started making candles when a younger generation was becoming interested in taper candles,” she says. When the pandemic hit, sales “just exploded. Through 2021, it was really wild.”

Although scented container and jar candles dominate the American market — “fragrance,” the National Candle Association notes, is “by far the most important characteristic impacting candle purchases today” — tapers have quietly emerged as a pandemic-era dark horse. Elegant and unobtrusive, they lend slim punctuation to a tablescape rather than overwhelming it with either scent or heavy branding — if a Diptyque candle is the wax equivalent of a Burberry scarf, a taper is more like a Shaker chair. Their simplicity, and affordability (a set of two typically runs between $8 and $15), made tapers an easy way for people stuck at home to “change it up,” Jackie Piper says.

Based in London, Piper has also borne witness to, and played an active role in, the taper candle’s resurgence. In 2015, she and Victoria Whitbread established British Colour Standard, a homewares and gifts brand. Their focus at the time was on designing eco-friendly tabletop wares, including candle holders. “There are hundreds of candle makers,” Piper says. “We thought, there’s no way we need to make our own.” Instead, they bought tapers from a German supplier. But when the supplier kept running out of stock, Piper and Whitbread decided to take matters into their own hands.

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Their tapers, which are hand-poured and finished by an artisan candle company in Indonesia, come in distinctive stripes that have made them a favorite at museum shops and homeware boutiques. “We had been thinking, god, we’ve got to sex it up a bit and come up with something different,” Piper says of the designs, which incorporate hues found in the standardized color indexes created between the 1930s and 1950s by the British Colour Council, an industry organization whose color system British Colour Standard revived.

Like Steifman, Piper saw a significant bump in business during the pandemic. “Before,” she says, “candles seemed to be a seasonal product. But then suddenly people were burning them all year round.” Since then, she’s also noticed more people “playing in the space”: there are more DIY kits on Etsy and Amazon, and at trade fairs, Piper says, “we’re like, wow, look at all the interesting candles. They’re not all successful, but it’s gotten less boring.”

Scroll through pretty much any homewares site and you’ll see that tapers are part of this larger candle boom: now, you can buy candles in the shape of farfalle, or drill bits, or succulent gardens, or choose between 15 different kinds of candles that all purport to smell like a peak-summer tomato.

Even the substrata of tapers contains multitudes: There are the hand-dipped tapers, the beeswax tapers, the small-batch tapers, the tapers made with paraffin wax (which is the majority of candles) versus soy wax versus stearin, which is a natural wax derived from animal and plant sources. On the Food52 website, for example, you will find tapers in a variety of sizes and colors; according to a spokesperson, the company is currently “investing in the category” to support sales of its newly reissued Dansk candle holders.

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Sunkyung Park, the Floral Society’s head of brand strategy, views this new wave of interest within the context of the earlier, social media-driven craze for so-called luxury candles like Diptyque, Le Labo, and Jo Malone. “People were ready and willing to show off the candles they were burning inside their homes,” she says. “This is the evolution of that but without the branding.” It’s “more focused on the experience versus how they can look,” Steifman adds. “I think it’s the experience that people are seeking.”

The experience that tapers can offer is particularly appealing to those who wish to evoke a time not just before social media and current home decor trends, but also before the electrical grid. Some taper enthusiasts “live in colonial homes and want to light them with candles in the spirit of the way the house probably looked in the 1700s,” says David Dunn, the owner of Mole Hollow Candles.

Hand-dipped tapers have been a signature Mole Hollow product since the Massachusetts company was founded in 1969. Over the years, Dunn has observed color-related buying patterns: some years, grays and neutrals are big sellers; other years, everyone wants traditional browns. “Generally,” he says, “tapers are dining holiday-driven,” meaning Thanksgiving, Christmas, even Mother’s Day. The company does a lot of business in scented bayberry taper candles, which many people traditionally burn for good luck on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and Dunn says those sales seem to be growing significantly. He’s also noticed a “moderate trend up” in the popularity of tapers, something he ties back to the pandemic.

No matter how many tablescapes they may conquer, tapers seem destined to remain in the shadows, so to speak, of their jarred, more odiferous siblings, in part because of their relative rarity. Whereas the scented candle market is “very, very crowded,” Dunn says, comparatively few companies are making tapers, particularly hand-dipped ones. “It’s very difficult to do well,” he explains. “It’s very fussy and requires real craftsmanship.” At Mole Hollow, he adds, new employees receive at least six months of training “because so many things can go sideways.”

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Perhaps that’s part of the taper’s appeal: This thing that’s so demanding of skill in turn demands nothing from us, and provides an entire mood in return. The holiday season is taper season (Food52 says that its taper sales double during the holidays) and yet tapers are in a way a contradiction of it because they don’t try too hard. They’re more of a vibe, a passport to everywhere and nowhere: light one and it could be 1723 or 1923 or 2023. They cater to both the timeless need for illumination, and more current desires for tableside accessories that promote an idea of individual style. And they also, as Jackie Piper points out, offer a built-in measure of convenience for hosts and guests alike. “The nice thing,” she says, ‘is that even if someone gives you a pack you don’t like, you just burn them.”

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