How Candles Became the Lockdown’s De Facto Interior Status Symbol

Candles, hallmarks of holiday and housewarming gifts, appeared on Instagram feeds far and wide as the pandemic kept celebrities, influencers, and their followers trapped indoors. Seemingly overnight, candles, notable for their design or scent, became the lockdown’s de facto interior status symbol. Here’s how it happened.

Interiors are having a moment. Even before the lockdown sent influencers trotting around the world back into their homes, vintage $10,000 Italian mirrors were replacing luxury handbags and rare sneakers as the Next Cool Thing, spurred on by celebrity cosigns from the likes of Bella Hadid and Frank Ocean.

Luxury and streetwear brands have thrown their own fuel on the fire, producing homeware, lifestyle goods, and collectibles designed to complement packed closets and racks of footwear. Dior’s highly publicized collaboration with Shawn Stussy yielded a collection of tableware. Japanese brand AMBUSH rang in the new year with darumas, symbols of good fortune and perseverance.

Dior x Stussy Tableware

10 months into a global lockdown, the popularity of home goods continues unabated with one product in particular emerging as an unlikely status symbol: candles. A product as old as time, the humble candle has taken on a new meaning in a shifting social media landscape that places more value on curation and aesthetics than on glitz and extravagance.

As interiors continue to define the world around us for at least the next few months, I explore how candles became the lockdown’s unofficial interior status symbol with input from the brands and retailers at the forefront of the trend.

“People have turned to products like candles and home fragrances to shift moods and inspire optimism.”

Because candles double as (affordable) art

The revival of mid-century modern has been the design movement du jour ever since Don Draper’s office made its way into living rooms across the world. Defined by clean, simple lines and a practical use of materials, the movement’s position at the top of the food chain has only recently been challenged by a slew of international designers injecting color, personality, and a sense of humor into everything they do.

Oo Lamp by Eny Lee Parker

The shift revolves loosely on organic shapes that reflect the creativity of its maker in place of rigid lines that serve only functional purposes. In the world of lighting, Eny Lee Parker’s Oo Lamp became something of a phenomenon in the last 12 months, appearing everywhere from supermodel Elsa Hosk’s living room to just about every respected design publication. The kicker? They start at $3,200.

Nonetheless, the move towards organic shapes has affected every medium of design, candles chief among them. Areaware’s playful Goober candle resembles a perfectly formed blob. Andrea Urem’s algorithmic candle offerings feel as though they could expand outwardly forever. Hannah Jewett, a New York-based jewelry designer, reached an entirely new audience with her candle experimentations, invoking vague notions of pagan rituals with flowing forms.

What they all have in common is their price: each candle comes in under $100. Most are priced under $50. As people spend more time than ever indoors, these candles and others like them have become an affordable way for people to inject personality into their homes, a necessity during a year that has given way to the #shelfie.

Twisted candle by Lex Pott, presented by Coming Soon NY

Among the dozens of designs that swept 2020 is a vibrant piece that acts as both candle and base. It goes by the name Twisted candle and was created by Dutch designer Lex Pott, known among candle aficionados as the designer behind Hay’s hit Pillar candles. Pott’s Twisted candle burst onto the scene towards the tail end of 2019, before exploding across social media in 2020.

Pott attributes the success of the candle to both the lockdown and the power of Instagram. “Most people are at home and want an object to make their domestic environment nicer. An affordable sculptural candle fits that very well,” explains Pott. “People posted their candle on Instagram and became ambassadors for the product. It’s a photogenic object; soft and sculptural so it’s easy to take pictures of.”

Far more accessible than the equivalent in clay or ceramic, the spike in candle interest hasn’t gone unnoticed by retailers. According to design destination Areaware, interest in sculptural candles was increasing before the pandemic, but surged once everyone was spending more time at home.

Areaware attributes their popularity to accessibility: “A candle is such a simple way to create ambiance and atmosphere in any space. As people spend more time staring at the interiors of their homes, it makes sense that they reach towards more comforting home accessories. While our candles are not the cheapest option on the market, they still only range between $6-24; a much more accessible home addition than, say, furniture or lighting.”

Boy Smells

A comforting presence in a time of great discomfort

Candles as sculptures may have helped lift the category to new heights but it’s their timeless purpose, their enveloping scents, that keep people coming back for more.

From French classics like Diptyque and Cire Trudon to contemporary superstars like Byredo and Boy Smells, candles have gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have as people seek tools for setting a mood and making home feel more comfortable.

Boy Smells, known for its playful tease between gender and scent, saw its business explode in 2020. Its ecommerce grew by approximately 1,200%, while overall revenue increased by 375%. Matthew Herman, co-founder of Boy Smells, attributes this record growth to a number of factors. “People have turned to products like candles and home fragrances to shift moods and inspire optimism, so there was a steady, if not growing demand for our products throughout this crisis. With consumers having confidence in the brand, and with an accessible price point of $32, we found consumers willing and ready to buy smell unseen.”

That confidence extends to both new and existing customers who looked to brands like Boy Smells for reassurance over the past year. “We’ve been able to package our product in a way that positively impacts the daily rituals of our customers in a time of uncertainty. Many of our launches and campaigns this year focused on escapist scents and allowing yourself little luxurious rituals in a time that has been difficult for so many.”

Goop x Heretic "This Smells Like My Vagina" Candle

Celebrities are joining the party

The 2000s were huge for celebrity fragrances. Britney Spears, the decade’s undisputed Queen of Pop, famously netted millions hawking rhinestone-studded bottles of perfume in malls around the world. Everyone from J.Lo and Lady Gaga to Usher and Beyoncé got in on the hype, releasing nauseatingly sweet fragrances in what now feels like a bygone era.

Fast forward to 2020 and today’s most in-touch celebrities are leveraging their platforms to break into the burgeoning candle market. According to NPD Group, the third quarter of 2020 saw fragrance sales increase 1% year-over-year, while home scents—led by candles—grew 21%. The report goes on to reveal 49% of scent shoppers wore their favorite fragrances less often last year, but a whopping 85% used home scents in the same time period, with candles as the most-used example.

Like many wellness trends in the last few years, the tipping point came on the heels of Gwyneth Paltrow’s “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle in January 2020. Priced at $75, the candle garnered endless publicity before it ultimately sold out, ushering in a new wave of celebrity products.

Taylor Swift's "Folklore" Candle

Since the launch of “This Smells Like My Vagina,” Hayley Williams, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, and Kylie Jenner have all released their own scents, either under their own brands or in collaboration with market leaders (and none having to do with body parts).

Swift’s “Folklore,” released for $40, can no longer be found at retail and those looking to get their hands on her home fragrance will have to dish out anywhere from $60 – $100 on eBay. Drake’s Better World Fragrance House, meanwhile, could rival NOCTA, his collaborative sublabel with Nike, as among the most anticipated celebrity product releases of 2021.

In the Age of Instagram, celebrities have typically lent their likeness through sound and image. By cosigning candles, cultural icons have uncovered an entirely new avenue to indulge the senses of fans around the world.

Like the most hyped OVO Jordans or a screenshot of Swift’s latest single on Spotify, what celebrity candles do above all is give consumers a chance to interact and share their fandom on social media, and if that means making a product as old as time the latest must-have in the process then so be it.