Half light is your best friend. This is an epiphany I had about candlelight years ago, when we started to light up for special events—dinner parties, birthdays, holiday meals. As soon as the electricity went off, everyone at the dinner table (notably, me) looked magically younger. Eyes twinkled, hair took on a luster, faces smoothed. It is no wonder that over time, every meal at my house has become a special event.
But not every member of my family is as enamored of forced twilight at the dinner table as I am.
"#$#%@!" my husband observed purply the other night. He leapt from the table, dashed across the kitchen, and threw the light switch to high.
"Stop, I'm melting," I shrieked, clawing at my cheeks.
"I just want to see how bad the damage is," he said.
"Oh my God, is something wrong with my face?" I asked, frantically patting my hairline.
"No, with me," he said. "It's so dark in here that I cut into my finger instead of my meat."
Oh please, it was barely a paper cut. As I taped him up, I realized, however, that perhaps I'd gone too far with the candlelight. I don't want to have to add the clutter of a Band-Aid box (highly flammable) to my tabletop votive display. So I phoned candlelight expert and event planner David Stark, author of the new book The Art of the Party. Here are his top tips:
Above: A candlelit Kinfolk picnic in Paris. Photograph by Dequelleplaneteestu via Flickr.
"I'm not ready to admit that Thomas Edison was onto something with electricity," I told Mr. Stark. "But some members of my family accuse me of going too far with the candlelight."
Mr. Stark has seen this problem before.
"You don't want to get to the point where you're in a space and the candles are generating so much heat that it's uncomfortable," he said. "A good idea is to think about what other decorations are on the table and then decide on the candles."
Tip No. 1: If you're serving food family style at the dinner table, he said, keep candle height low. "You don't want somebody who is reaching over to grab a platter or a serving spoon to have a sleeve catch on fire," Mr. Stark pointed out.
Tip No. 2: If you want taller candles at the table, encase lantern or pillar candles in glass. "This is an especially good idea if you have a lot of paper on the table, like say paper flower decorations. They're quite flammable," he said.
Tip No. 3: Avoid the seance look, especially if you're in an indoor location in the summer. "If the air conditioning doesn't work well and you have too many candles, you can all of a sudden generate the heat of a fire," Mr. Stark said. Not a good idea.
Above: Photograph via Refinery 29.
"If you do it right, candles create instant ambiance," said Mr. Stark. "When you think about decor, the best investments you can make are in candles."
Tip No. 4: You don't need to spend a zillion dollars on votive candle holders. Mr. Stark keeps a supply of clear glass votives and tealight holders—"giant packs from Ikea"—on hand for parties.
"This reminds me of another problem I have—that smudgy wax that gets hard and stuck at the bottom of the votive holder after the candle burns out," I said. "How do you get that out?"
"Well, that's another reason to get them from Ikea—what are they, like 99 cents? I think they are intended to be disposable," said Mr. Stark. "I don't think they were ever intended to have more than their brief, shining moment."
Above: Actually, a four-pack of Galej Tealight Holders is $1.99 from Ikea.
Tip No. 5: To re-use glass votive candle holders, run hot water over them to loosen the smudgy leftover wax. If necessary, run the edge of a butter knife around the softened wax and pop it out gently.
Another benefit of a clear glass candle holder with a white votive is that once the flame is lit, everything else disappears—and it's all about the warm glow from the fire.
Above: With an antique glaze, a set of three Silver Finish Votives is $36 from Canvas.
Tip No. 6: "I tend to not gravitate toward candles that are colored because I really want the effect to come from the light," said Mr. Stark.
"But colored candles are so popular right now," I said.
Tip No. 7: If you want to use a colored candle, use a color that's really a neutral—black for instance, or gray. Or cream.
Above: Black candles at Julie's family house on Cape Cod. Photograph by Megan Wilson.
"You really never use colored candles?" I asked.
Tip No. 8: You can use colored candles—but sparingly, and in the right setting. "If you are going to keep candles on the table even when they're not lit—during the day, for instance—then you're going for a different effect," says Mr. Stark. "Then use a color that complements the other things that are going on in the room."
Above: A collection of candlesticks by Ted Muehling. Photograph by Jacob Hertzell for T Magazine.
Tip No. 9: If you buy colored candles, make sure they are colored through and through. "Sometimes they are colored on the outside and white on the inside and the minute they start to burn, they look terrible," said Mr. Stark. "You do not want that white marshmallow filling look."
Above: A set of six Ivory Dinner Candles from French candle making company Bougies la Francaise is £6.60 from Ben Pentreath.
Tip No. 10: Keep your candles in the freezer. This will stop them from dripping wax. "I read about this trick somewhere a million years ago, and for some weird reason, it really does seem to work," said Mr. Stark.
Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.
Tip No. 11: Another way to get a "colored flame" effect is to put candles inside a colored lantern or luminary. "The lantern sheathes the glass with the color, and the effect is the color sparkling, rather than the candle itself," says Mr. Stark. "Much nicer."
Tip No. 12: Feel free to mix and match candle heights and thicknesses. "Sometimes it's nice to have an architectural straight line and other times it's nice to have a multi-level still life where everything is varied," said Mr. Stark.
Want to read more Domestic Dispatches from Michelle? See The Truth About Indoor Citrus Trees (Hint: They're Rather Be Outdoors) and 10 Mistakes to Avoid When You Remodel.