Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio
with Candle Queen Tamara Mayne

September 10, 2018

Tamara sneaks a sniff in her Brooklyn, New York, studio; photos by Theresa Hensley

Some 20 blocks from our own offices in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Tamara Mayne and her staff of candle experts toil in Industry City. Tamara’s studio is filled with smells: pear, bergamot, jasmine, gardenia, lemongrass—the list goes on. She’s a new mom, and it’s a rare treat to catch her at work in her Sunset Park outpost. “My home studio [is] where I do most of my work,” she tells us, adding, “in true New York fashion, it’s half of our bedroom.” But if her apartment’s where much of the behind-the-scenes, creative-director-y magic happens, Industry City is where it all comes together. After all, that’s where her Sunday Morning and Love Potion candles come to life—where soy wax is heated, mixed with fragrance, and poured into sleek, stylish tins and jars, topped off with stickers Tamara designs herself.

It’s no surprise that a candle-making studio might be a relaxing place, but Tamara’s workspace, with its vast wall of windows and tiny “shop” where you can smell every candle she makes, is especially calming. Dressed in jeans and a casually knotted button-up, she’s nothing if not approachable. That unstuffiness makes its way into her creations, too: they’re well crafted, beautifully designed, and smell great, but they’re not too self-serious. Made from soy wax, a sustainable, clean-burning alternative to traditional paraffin wax, each is perfumed and packaged with a care that shows… and they’re usually named something fun. You know, like “Love Potion.”

Watch our video to learn how Tamara bottles that “lazy Sunday” mood

We visited Tamara’s studio to see her goods crafted in the flesh—er, wax?—and spoke with her about where inspiration strikes (the subway), how long it takes to develop a new candle (longer than you’d think), and more. Read on for our Q&A.

How did you first get your start making candles?

I started [my company] out of my apartment in September 2013. … After a few early debacles, I learned more about the wonders of soy wax, and started researching aromatherapy and perfumery, and became fascinated by the art of both. I was a graphic designer at the time, and was toying around [with] designing labels and packaging inspired by vintage apothecaries and French packaging design. Candles are such expressive products—they can embody beauty both in aroma and visual appeal.

What was the most exciting thing about launching your business?

The most exciting thing about launching a business was getting into shops I’d frequented for years for inspiration. Every time I’d get an email from an interested buyer, I’d get a little thrill—like, “wow, my designs and scents are good enough that people want to sell them in their stores.” To get into the stores I’d been to or heard of whose product curations were so impeccable was such an honor. It still is!

What are your most essential tools?

My sketchbook, where I work out fragrance concepts and designs; my nose (of course), to guide the work of the perfumers we partner with to bring those concepts to life; my iMac, where I execute designs; and my DSLR camera, which I use to capture fantastical vignettes of our final candles.

How does your workspace inspire you?

At my home studio … I’ve created a sort of creative sanctuary with a mood board of inspiring photos related to the project I’m working on. Right now, I have a bunch of pictures of Art Deco patterns and styled Vogue shoe editorials to inspire the limited edition holiday collection I’m designing. I love brass, so I’ve collected a number of gold desk accessories—a tape dispenser, letter [opener], pen, and business card holder which bring me joy every time I sit down to work. I usually have at least one candle burning (I’m often evaluating fragrances and how they burn). I try to have fresh flowers on my desk at all times, but I’m really bad at taking care of them, so they’re usually fresh for two days, then dead for two weeks. I also have a library of essential oils which I experiment with to kick off concepts. I need to listen to music in order to design or edit or write—lately I’ve been alternating between Chopin and Amy Winehouse [editor’s note: my favorite]. Being surrounded by beautiful things always helps me produce my best work.

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?

The ecosystem of artists that helps us get to our final creations—the perfumers, packaging engineers, glassmakers, and printing experts—is paramount to making the best final product possible. There is a long list of makers whose hands and expertise touch these candles. Once the vessel is finalized, our internal team goes into perfecting the science of the candle—experimenting with different wicks, percentages of perfume oils, and pouring temperatures. Each product starts with my vision but, in the end, is the work of many people—[my] team as well as our collaborators ultimately execute the vision.

How long does it usually take you to perfect a new candle?

Usually about 6-8 months, up to a year. The scent process is a lot of back and forth revisions with the perfumer, and the vessel and packaging can go through numerous revisions as well. Having to sample so many components really extends the process, but that’s what it takes to get to a beautiful outcome!

Where does downtime fit into a day’s work?

I don’t really have any downtime anymore until my son goes to bed. … I have to find “downtime” in everything I do that others might consider to be work—cooking, reading to my son, walking to the grocery store, unloading the dishwasher, writing copy, designing packaging, even responding to emails. I find moments in doing these things that are everything downtime is to others—relaxing, invigorating, rejuvenating.

What advice would you offer the you of five years ago?

Don’t sweat the occasional complaints so much. Scent is so subjective, so obviously some people won’t like certain scents while others may love them. Back in the day, if one person complained, it would always keep me up at night and I would ruminate nonstop about it. Also, some people just complain because they’re having a bad day, or are out for attention, or just like to hear the sound of their own voice. I, of course, always honored the valid feedback, like improving the way things were packaged so they didn’t break in transit, or changing the wick to improve the burn, but you’re not going to be able to please everyone with the same scent.

How do you set goals for yourself?

I make a lot of lists! I don’t like to have huge lofty goals that seem daunting and unachievable, so I break them down into smaller achievable goals. On a daily basis, if I have a ton to do, I time block tasks. Two hours to design gift set packaging, one hour to respond to emails, one hour to write copy for a new scent launch, etc. Micro-actions add up and eventually, before my eyes, a goal has been reached.

How do you recharge your creativity?

When I feel I need a creative boost, I get away from the computer and wander around the city aimlessly—pop into shops, art museums, or just ride the subway for a while and people watch. I’m the most creative when I’m poring through books and magazines on the subway. Particularly on the subway—I’m not sure why! Sometimes, if I can’t get out, I’ll scroll through Pinterest, read blogs, scroll TypeWolf, my Bloglovin’ app feed, Dribbble (a graphic design community), and browse Behance.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?

With food and booze! At the studio, we just celebrated shipping our last gigantic order by ordering pizza and popping a bottle of champagne. We usually celebrate after a big milestone and always at the end of the year to celebrate surviving the holiday season.

Are there any creative pursuits you’d like to try, but haven’t yet?

Ceramics! Technically, I did take one ceramics class when I was 10, but I would hardly consider that to count for anything. But the idea of sitting at a wheel, forming beautiful shapes with clay combined with the scientific process of firing and glazing is so dreamy to me. I’m going to get into it as soon as I can—then I can make vessels for us to pour candles into!

Pick up one of Tamara’s creations here »

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