How to Decorate with Scent—and Find the Best One for Your Home
Think outside of the (candle) box and layer a fragrance throughout your house to create a haven that engages all of your senses.
At Sunset, we love old houses more than we love that “old house smell,” a mix of aging plaster, 100 years of accumulated cooking smells, and a hint of dust and ancient books. You get the picture. Kristen Pumphrey and Thomas Neuberger, the founders of P.F. Candle Co., get it, too.
As California residents of a great old Craftsman in Pasadena, and owners of the Los Angeles-based independent candle and home fragrance company, this is a familiar conversation.
“When you live in a house, it’s easy to become nose-blind,” says Pumphrey by Zoom from their offices in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s good to do a reset. Open the windows to get some air circulating, and use scent layering to ‘decorate’ your house with fragrance.”
Decorating a house is a task that engages all of the senses, and not just a visual experiment. How a fabric feels is just as important as the way it looks. The sound of a breeze rustling through trees—or soothing music—contributes to the atmosphere, too. When it comes to creating a haven at home, for yourself and anyone who walks through your door, making it smell as good as it looks is an important and often overlooked piece of the puzzle.
Pumphrey started the business after a stint at a now-folded crafting magazine ended. One of her job responsibilities was to work with Etsy vendors, and she was so inspired by the booming craft business that she decided to start making and selling things her self. She began in Austin, Texas, hand-pouring owl-shaped candles into vintage molds. By the time she made her way to California, she and her partner Neuberger were tapping into something bigger—channeling the moods and emotions of the state’s landscape into gorgeous home fragrances.
“We are really known for our unisex, neutral fragrances,” says Pumphrey, who credits Neuberger with coming up with the brand’s now iconic amber jar and craft paper label. “The candle business is pretty female focused. And as a brand, we aren’t overly floral or feminine. Our most popular scents are woodsy. People always like to say that our candles smell real. Mostly, we set out to create scents that don’t irritate people.”
“We rented a cabin there and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was,” Pumphrey says. “The fragrance is a mix of sea salt, damp redwoods, and dried sage. The fragrances come out of important experiences for us.”
They were still hand-pouring candles at home when an order came from West Elm—for 4,500 of them.
“We were pouring 200 candles by hand in a day,” says Neuberger. “We had to figure out how to scale up production.”
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Today, they have close to 100 employees, a small production facility, and the company has become a West Coast authority for how to live beautifully with fragrance that lingers in the background but doesn’t over-power.
Choosing the right scent is the first step.
“When it comes to choosing a home fragrance, you’ve got to determine how you want to feel. Jasmine is good for relaxing, and is known to help with anxiety. Rosemary is stimulating and helps with cognition and focus. Sandalwood is grounding,” she says. Lavender and citrus, like their new Ojai Lavender blend, are clean and uplifting, and work well in kitchens and dining rooms to clear out lingering food smells.
Some people pick one signature scent to use all year, and other people like to switch it up seasonally. Fall and winter could call for what Pumphrey calls “balsamic” scents that are sweet and spicy like Black Fig, and then switch to airier, marine scents like Swell when the weather is warmer.
To create a lasting home fragrance that is low-maintenance and long-lasting, Pumphrey and Neuberger suggest a layering system. Pick one favorite scent or a couple compatible ones to fill your home with ambient aroma, and a simple routine.
Start with a Reed Diffuser
A diffuser—those pots of scented liquid with absorbent sticks to draw out the fragrance—is the place to start. It sits in the background and creates a low-key base layer and a round-the-clock source of delicious smelling goodness. Pumphrey and Neuberger say that fresh, piney Piñon is a good place to start.
“It’s subtle, like a fireplace in the Southwest, with a hint of vanilla and cedar,” Pumphrey says. Stick it on a shelf in the corner of any room and the aroma will linger for months.
Add a Candle
Lighting a candle in a room when you’re home for stretches of time, or about to invite people into your home, is a good way to add a second layer to deepen the fragrance. Clean, nature-inspired smells that aren’t cloying can be layered easily, like Cedar & Sagebrush, which is inspired by the Eastern Sierra, or slightly deeper, smoother Sandalwood Rose.
Pro tip: Candles should be burned for three to four hours so the wax has a chance to melt evenly and you don’t lose the wick in a “tunnel” at the center.
Use Incense and Room Sprays Last
“Just before people arrive, try burning an incense stick,” says Pumphrey. It creates a moody, welcoming atmosphere, and is great at eliminating unwanted odors. “Open the windows first to get some air circulating, and then light an incense stick or cone. The cones burn in about 25 minutes so it’s a great way to mark time.” If you’re working at your desk, light one as a reminder to get up and stretch when it’s out.
If you’re having overnight guests, use a spray to refresh curtains and bed linens, even throw pillows.
Add a Scent Bundle to a Fire
“You can also experiment with things that smell great around your yard and your neighborhood,” says Pumphrey. Next time you’re lighting a fire in the fireplace, or at a campsite, make a fragrant bundle that you’ll be able to smell while it’s burning. Collect rosemary lavender, some leaves and branches from a citrus tree, pine branches or something from a creosote bush, and tie it with twine. Then put it directly on the flame. “You have to make it pretty big to get any scent from it, but it’s really nice,” she says. “And it feels like a very West Coast thing to do.”
Be a Candle Tourist
“One of our favorite things to do is to collect candles when we travel that smell very much like the place where they’re made,” Pumphrey says. “When we light it, we remember what it feels like to be there.”