The golden glow of candlelight gives a room instant atmosphere, whether the mood is romantic, mysterious or celebratory. The candle's flickering flame has a mesmerizing effect.
"Candles convey a sense of drama, a sense of occasion," says Miranda Innes, author of "The Book of Candles" (Dorling Kindersley Inc., distributed by Houghton Mifflin; $18.95). This handsomely illustrated volume has everything you'd want to know about candles, including a brief history, a catalog exploring the many kinds of candle design and a section on decorating with candles, plus a step-by-step guide to making them.
"Candlesticks and candlelight are cheap theater," says Ms. Innes; they're an inexpensive yet evocative fashion accessory.
It wasn't always so. For centuries, long before kerosene, gas and electric lights, candles were the only source of indoor lighting. Ms. Innes writes, "Julius Caesar made plans by candlelight, Dante worshipped Beatrice, Shakespeare pondered his Dark Lady, Caravaggio painted Bacchus."
As gas lamps, paraffin lamps and more predictable light sources replaced candle power, people began to consider candles more a luxury than a necessity. It was probably then that the more esoteric "decorated" candles came into being. In a kaleidoscope of colors or sprinkled with surface decoration, these embellished candles were little different from other decorative accessories.
Today, barring power outages, there is no other function for candles than to give pleasure and to evoke a mood. The ambience can be disrupted, however, by leaving candles unattended or by allowing them near small children or blowing draperies. Common sense, as always, is the key.
Ms. Innes, a garden and design editor for Country Living, a British home magazine, said that in writing about international country houses she found that lighting was one of the neglected elements of decor.
"Country decorating, even grand English country, is a pastiche of something a couple of centuries back," says Ms. Innes. "But lighting is always where it falls down. There is nothing very romantic about most contemporary lighting."
"To use candlelight is to fly in the face of technology," said Ms. Innes. "We're not talking about halogen spotlights, we're taking an anachronistic leap."
And today, more and more people are taking this leap. Indeed, if sales are any barometer, candles appear to be in great demand. In the last five to 10 years the very design of candles has blossomed. From supermarkets to card shops and even boutiques that are exclusively devoted to candles and all related paraphernalia, the variety of candle types on the market is enormous.
They are machine-molded in rectangular, triangular, circular or even heart shapes. They are stenciled with such things as holly leaves and dotted with wax, such as snowflake-sprinkled red holiday candles. They are stippled, marbleized, sponged with glitter or in color, and hand-painted or decorated with patterned paper, tissue paper or foil. They are even decorated with fresh foliage.
For those so inclined, candles may be decorated easily with a mixture of paint, a little water and dishwashing liquid. Popular techniques include sponging, stenciling and freehand design. "It's surprising what you can do with wax and string," says Ms. Innes.
Today's handmade candles are a far cry from those done by flower children in the '60s. Like other facets of the crafts movement, candle-making has grown in sophistication. Indeed, hand-dipped, hand-rolled and beautifully scented candles seem to have a special aura, and people are willing to pay a premium price for them. But even machine-made candles have evolved into things of beauty.
In fact, the sheer variety of candles and candlesticks makes them a decorator's dream, according to Ms. Innes. "Candles echo and reflect any kind of interior design." Although Ms. Innes says there really are no hard and fast rules for decorating with candles and candlesticks, she does recommend complementing your possessions. "Bold painted designs echo bright Provencal pottery. Pressed flower candles work best with delicate Victorian porcelains. Stippled and gilded candles are beautiful in art nouveau settings.
"I like grouping colors, such as Indian colors or spicy colors. Brilliant colors work very well with ethnic designs. And some geometric, simple black candles do well in modern settings.