Ready, set (the table), go: Tablescaping contests encourage creative and beautiful place settings, centerpieces and more
Andrea Smith's dining room will be out of commission for the next few months while she prepares what she hopes will be another award-winning entry for a local "tablescaping" contest.
Smith, a retired teacher and avid quilter in Estes Park, Colorado, has already spent hours planning what dishes, table linens and centerpiece she will use for her place setting in the October competition, which serves as a fundraiser for a museum.
"You should see my dining room table," she said. "It becomes my laboratory."
The event appeals to her creative side and provides a chance to get involved in the community. Volunteers at the Estes Park Museum started the contest last fall after hearing about tablescaping competitions elsewhere, said organizer Marcia Gerritz.
While the phrase "tablescaping" may have been coined since the launch of the Food Network, the art of creating a beautiful table with carefully chosen dishes and centerpieces has been around since at least the Victorian era. A shift toward eating dinner one course at a time, instead of all at once, meant there was more room on the table for decorations, such as mirrors, candlesticks and flowers, said Amy McLaughlin, who researched the topic before planning a tablescaping contest to benefit Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha & Putnam, in Charleston, West Virginia.
McLaughlin thought the competition would be a great way to attract shoppers to the charity's new thrift store this spring. She invited four local merchants to create tables using items from their businesses and the thrift store. Customers were asked to choose their favorite.
The winner, boutique owner Rob O'Quinn, was vaguely aware of tablescaping when he received McLaughlin's invitation. "But I didn't know it was all that," he said. "I jumped in and went crazy."
In addition to creating an elaborate fairy garden on the table, he crafted a trellis from tree branches that hung above it, and decorated the table's base with rocks and mulch. "It was a blast," said O'Quinn.
Fellow competitor Marisa Jackson agreed. As owner of a design studio that specializes in calligraphy and custom invitations, she has seen tablescaping grow in popularity. Pinterest and other websites featuring photos of posh events have sparked interest in elaborate table decor, she said.
"It totally elevates your event," said Jackson, who created a Beatrix Potter-inspired table.
Mary Hubbard is a volunteer with the Dallas Alumnae Association of Kappa Kappa Gamma, which hosts a tablescaping fundraiser to benefit local charities.
"People don't get to sit at a table like this every day. It's like being on a movie set," she said. "I see a lot of people getting inspired."
Tablescaping is one of the newest 4-H competitions at the Franklin County Fair in Ohio. Samantha Lee entered this summer because she enjoys crafting. Inspired by a family vacation to Hawaii, she created a luau tablescape that included decorations purchased at the dollar store.
"I really like setting the table," said the 11-year-old, whose winning design included confetti, flower leis and a handmade pineapple. "With this, I can be as creative as I want to be."
Small details make a big impact, said Nicole Puracchio. Her boss asked her to design a construction-themed table for a fundraiser in Plainfield, Illinois. She incorporated toy trucks, orange safety vests and drinking glasses that looked like traffic cones. She loved planning and attending the event.
"Everybody had a completely different theme — everything from Grandma's crystal to New York City," she said.
In the Estes Park competition, organizers set the theme. For the 2016 competition, High Country Celebration, Smith pulled together pine cone-rimmed dishes she had bought at a thrift store, candles shaped like pine trees and a chipmunk figurine. She won first place.
"Everybody else was using their grandma's china. I don't have my grandma's china. My grandfather did the dishes and he wasn't a careful dishwasher. Everything was cracked and chipped," she said. "I used amber glasses and colorful elements. The colors drew people in immediately."
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