It seems romantic to think of a time where many wealthy households and churches had their very own chandlery. Long before electricity, these small yet crucial rooms would be closely guarded by a chandler and used solely to make and store candles, providing a constant source of light.
Looking out of Wax Atelier’s workshop window in Barking, East London, it feels like a serendipitous coincidence that the building next door is, infact, a church. With dipping racks hanging from the ceiling and large vats of wax slowly bubbling away, the workshop is home to contemporary chandlers Lola Lely and Yesenia Thibault-Picazo.
Wax Atelier began in 2017 after Lola and Yesenia had spent several years working alongside each other on collaborative projects and material research assignments. “I have always been experimental with materials,” Lola says, as she carefully hangs up a batch of freshly dipped candles to cool. “I trained in Product Design at the Royal College of Art, and since then I have been trying to find where craft, design and public engagement intersect.”
Yesenia’s background is more traditional, studying weaving and embroidery in her native Paris before moving to London to study Material Futures at Central Saint Martins. “I was searching for a real sense of purpose and meaning to my work,” Yesenia explains, giving a pot of boiling rose wax a steady stir. “Being in London I was suddenly able to engage with other experts and scientists. I began to look at our relationship with materials, and what their impact was on the planet.”Bringing together their differing aesthetics and complimentary perspectives, Lola and Yesenia decided to collaborate, setting themselves a project brief to sink their teeth into. “We wanted to explore a material in its entirety,” Lola says, “from its social and historical context, to its economical side and future implications.”
“We had both been using wax in our own work in different ways - myself to preserve, and Lola with textiles,” Yesensia says. “Our brief was to research wax in all of its facets. Looking at it from a craft, manufacturing and a raw material perspective.”
Lola and Yesenia reached out to scientists working with wax and visited artisans practicing traditional wax crafts to fully grasp the versatility and potential of the material. Traces of their research line the studio shelves; orange wax, wax in shades of deep seaweed green and colourful maquettes demonstrating the sculptural qualities that wax can have. Among the many types and variations, their research led them to beeswax and traditional candle making, and slowly Wax Atelier began to take its shape.
From the wax of boiled cinnamon used in temples in India, to the burning of tallow to light the streets of London, candle making itself has a long, varied and undefined history. “We’ve looked as far back as The Egyptians, where plant matter and paper were used to create wicks,” Yesenia says. “The fat of animals and whales were used for candles at one point, which would have been fairly horrible to work with, but it created light.”
Dipping candles in beeswax came in the middle ages. The material was regarded as noble, and reserved only for the churches and the wealthy. “It was very rare,” Yesenia continues, “but it was loved as the scent was clean, and the light was clear and bright.” With the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the time consuming process of dipping gave way to the quicker mass process of pouring and moulds, and it wasn't long before cheaper and more accessible materials followed too.
“The candles we make at Wax Atelier go back to the ancient art of candle making,” Lola says reassuringly, showing me an apparatus reminiscent of a musical instrument. ‘‘It’s very simple. We take a cotton wick and thread up this rack, and dip it into the beeswax. We pull it out, let it cool, and repeat,” she says, pointing out layers instantly starting to build up and dry before your eyes. “It’s slow and ancient, but the result is very unique, and the light feels primeval.”
The viscous beeswax simmers at 80 degrees, giving off a subtle honey scent in the workshop as it boils. Each batch of candles can go through anywhere between eight to 20 dips, depending on Lola and Yesenia’s desired shape, width and length. “Beeswax is precious and beautiful to work with, it has many unrivalled properties,” Lola says. “But we want to use it in a sustainable way so that we don’t overuse it.” Green tea wax, the wax of rose and beeswax infused with madder pigments are blends that are a result of Lola and Yesenia’s extensive research and development. The resulting palette is soft and tonal - each with its own unique scent. “The final colour can sometimes be a happy accident,” Yesenia follows. “We blend the beeswax with plant wax, utilising the inherent qualities of each. For us, it is about awareness and limitations of materials combined with availability.” Any wax left over on apparatus in the workshop simply gets scraped off and melted back down, making the process a resourceful one.
Another way that Lola and Yesenia are thinking about their social conscience is through their local community. After being approached by Participatory City Foundation, Lola and Yesenia were able to develop a skills programme, offering members of the community training in traditional candle making - from the mixing and dipping to the production and manufacturing. “There's a rich history of making in Barking and Dagenham, many everyday items were once manufactured here,” Lola explains. “But over the past 30 years that’s disappeared. We wanted to bring making back to the area.”
As Wax Atelier scales up, a team of local residents are now equipped with the craft and knowledge to create candles and waxed textiles with efficiency and precision. “They have become makers and experts,” gleams Yesenia. “The programme injects positive impact into the community, simply through the sharing of skill and knowledge.”
With a wonderful eye for design, a dynamic approach towards making and a commitment towards engaging the community, Wax Atelier has a contemporary working model with a strong social enterprise at its core. “It’s the idea of a cooperative that we are working towards. It is so important for curious minds to work freely and in a flexible way,” says Yesenia. “And it’s for all ages,” adds Lola. “We will continue to build on skills and keep sharing. Wax Atelier is for everyone.”
Interview by Daisy Gray.
Images and film by James Bannister.