Meet the Candlemakers
What happens when a biochemist and an event planner have a meeting of creative minds? In the case of Okra Candle’s Michelle and Erik Rust, the result has been an outpouring of cool, fresh takes on one of the oldest forms of craft on the planet — candle making.
In 2019, Okra Candle’s Michelle Rust was in search of a particular style of candle for an event she was curating, but could not find what she wanted anywhere. ‘I went to a candlemaker and what they came up with was not a success,’ she says. So, Michelle and her partner Erik talked it over, ‘and we decided, cool, we’ll try it ourselves.’ Armed with a reasonably-priced 3D printer and plenty of enthusiasm, the couple embarked on the project that has, in just three years, become their burgeoning candle-making business, Okra Candle.
Michelle and Erik complement each other perfectly: she has a creative eye and loves nothing more than to style beautiful tablescapes, events, and spaces; he is a biochemist by training, who also happens to be an instinctive teacher and gardener, as well as a musician. ‘Before I knew Erik was a biochemist, I actually thought he was just a musician,’ muses Michelle. But most of all, she adds, ‘Erik is a tinkerer. If something is not working, he will tinker with it until he has mastered the skill of creating it himself, or getting it to work again.’ As Michelle explains, ‘Erik’s background mainly comes into its own on the technical side of Okra — research and development — and his curiosity plays a big role; he works with the wax to figure it out. And then with my background, I have a good eye for the details, and I always have a desire to bring out new designs.’ Unsurprisingly, this blend of practical and conceptual abilities has served Okra Candle very well.
The brand’s name came to the duo during a road trip at the very end of 2019. They had created their first successful candle designs, and were ready to go beyond using the results in Michelle’s work to roll out a range for sale to the general public. ‘We were playing with names and we knew we wanted something short and powerful that would be remembered quite easily, and “Okra” just stuck. And then we added the “Candle” to tie in clearly with the nature of our business,’ Michelle explains. Coincidentally, one of Okra Candle’s early designs was their Gear candle: a concept that visually referenced both gear cogs and the ridged shape of an okra fruit.
Since the creation of the Gear — a strikingly bold, cone-shaped design that immediately catches the eye — there has been a veritable outpouring of fresh takes on ‘chandling’ from Okra Candle. From the most elegant of hand-dipped dinner tapers to the bold beauty of sculpted and moulded forms, it seems the sky’s the limit when it comes to Michelle and Erik’s ability to reconceptualise their product. Rather remarkable, really, when you consider that candle making is one of the oldest forms of craft on the planet — its basic technology is at least 5000 years old, dating back to the simple rushlights used by the ancient Egyptians.
Counterintuitively, perhaps it was precisely the fact that neither Erik nor Michelle had any formal training in candle making that has enabled them to work so freely with the possibilities of their chosen medium. They learnt on the job, by way of trial, error, and experimentation. ‘It took us a while to get to know our medium,’ says Michelle. She explains that it’s taken time to understand precisely how wick sizing works best, for example, and to develop just the right blends of waxes to use when moulding or dipping candles. ‘This year we’ve been able to push on a lot further, because we really understand it now. Wax is a wonderful medium to work with,’ she says, ‘and when you understand it, you can push its boundaries quite a lot.’
The most enjoyable part of their process? Without a doubt, every time Michelle has made a candle in the last three years, the most thrilling part has been seeing candles emerge from their moulds. ‘It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve made that specific candle,’ she says. ‘You have an “Oh, wow!” moment every single time.’ The process begins with selecting or creating a mould and choosing a colour, and then heating the mould and wax to just the right temperature, securing the wick, and carefully pouring the molten wax in a steady stream. The time taken for the candle to set depends on how big the mould is: ‘Candle making takes a lot of patience,’ says Michelle. After demoulding, each candle goes to the finishing station, then to the packaging department, before finally being shipped to its happy purchaser.
Many of Okra Candle’s designs are made in 3D-printed moulds that enable the creation of candles with a playful variety of twists, turns, and unexpected details. And then there’s the brand’s wide-ranging colour palette, which is vibrant and innovative, ranging from lilac and topaz to a spectrum of cool, contemporary greens. Experimentation has been at the heart of Michelle and Erik’s work to date, and this shows in everything they create. ‘When we train new people,’ says Michelle, ‘we explain that wax is a very forgiving medium. Obviously, if you have to re-melt a candle you lose some of the mass of the wax, but at least you can re-melt it if something goes wrong, and then you can create something new.’
The public’s response to the duo’s work has been hugely enthusiastic — not entirely a surprise to Michelle and Erik, who had seen the gap in the market that their designs were made to fill. But as Michelle shares, ‘As a business owner, you will always be uncertain about its future success, and we put ourselves completely into the product and into our brand.’ The overwhelmingly positive feedback, and the achievement of rapidly racking up a range of collaborations with fellow South African creatives, have been very gratifying.
Ideas for new candle designs ‘come from everywhere,’ says Michelle. ‘I think anything can inspire, from the movement of sand on a dune, to the way someone walks down the street, or an earring that someone is wearing.’ The Okra Candle aesthetic is sophisticated, yet with an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek quality that both charms and beguiles. ‘We do enjoy expressing ourselves,’ Michelle says. ‘Like the Screwed candle, for example. We designed it on a Sunday evening after working all weekend, so we felt absolutely freakin’ screwed. And that’s it; it looks like a screw and we felt screwed. So it was just very fitting.’
From the delightfully witty to the everyday essential (Okra Candle has just expanded into making a range of classic boxed dinner candles), Michelle and Erik seem capable of bringing an almost limitless range of desirable designs into candle form. Combining functionality with charm, their creations are affordable luxuries that add a unique touch to a table or display, and Okra Candle looks set to garner many more admirers in the years to come.
Photography by Warren Heath
Text by Robyn Alexander
Production: Sven Alberding
Location: La Cotte, Franschhoek