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A real knife (and fork) fight

At the L.A. County Fair, tablescapers transform place settings into works of art. The competition is fierce and the judges' remarks can bite.

September 28, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Marie and Christel Schoenfelder looked down the rows of tabletops with a mix of anxiety and anticipation.

Many thousands of dollars of silk, china, crystal and silver were spread out before them. Months of planning, shopping, cleaning and crafting were about to climax under the horse-racing concourse at the Los Angeles County Fair.

The mother-daughter duo from Rancho Cucamonga are two of the reigning queens of one of the most esoteric competitions at the fair: who can set the best dinner table.

They would vie against about 30 other contestants -- and each other -- transforming a function that might take five minutes for the typical American family meal into months-long quests for displays that in the end no one would eat at.

Down one row, an upturned table flanked by silky cushions and swathed in fabric looked like a Moroccan tent. To its right, a table decorated with lacy runners, busts, corset frames and glass cake platters evoked Victorian times. A row across, a James Bond-themed table featured martini glasses, lady's lipstick and a handgun.

Each setting was designed to accommodate an elaborate menu: beef tenderloin, grilled asparagus and mint juleps at one. Chicken tagine at another.

But no food would touch these bowls and plates. Eating is very much not the point.

And please, no touching that might disturb the setup. Exact distances separated utensils. Plates were placed and layered precisely. Linens were coordinated with the color of the wine.

Marie, 61, began working on her entry in July. Her table looked like the Kentucky Derby. A racetrack centerpiece included toy horses and miniature white picket fences. Red napkins were folded precisely into four pyramids, and Kentucky Derby racing tickets were spread over the end of a white tablecloth.

This was the first time she had competed head-on against Christel, 34, who also started work in July. Her Dr. Seuss table relied on a mash of bright pastel colors, stuffed toys and a menu written in the style of the famous children's author.

Tablescaping got its start as an outgrowth of breeding schools and etiquette classes. But what was once about stemware, linens and understated style has become more artistic and outlandish -- tables based on such movies as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and one even based on a Monopoly board (Christel's grand prize winner from a few years ago).

It's not about enhancing appetites.

"We want to shock people," Marie said. "It's about the 'wow factor.' "

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For all the emphasis on creativity, rules dominate tablescaping: no professional tablescapers are allowed, contestants use equal-size tables, settings must correspond with menus and themes, no food is permitted on tables. Contestants are guided by etiquette books, which set down the exact distance from the center of a dish to the center of its neighbor -- 24 inches -- and mandate that chargers and silverware be one inch from the table edge and on and on.

It's why the Schoenfelders constantly measure and set, measure and set, and do it again.

The most maddening part is aligning your tablecloth, they say.

"You think you have one corner perfect, but it's uneven on the other side," said Christel, who often refers to a dog-eared copy of a book titled "Napkin Magic." "So you move it slightly, and then the other side is off. It's never exactly even."

A smudge on a wineglass or knife is a point off. A piece of cutlery aligned incorrectly is another point off. And don't even get started about having the salad fork on the inside.

"It's pretty cutthroat, this tablescaping," said Liisa Primack, who oversees all the craft competitions and exhibits at the fair. "People come in with ironing boards, Windex, DustBusters, lint brushes, safety pins -- a whole toolshed."

"It's nail-biting," said Bonnie Overman, past winner for many tables, including an "Out of Africa" entry. This year Overman was competing with a design modeled after the musical "Wicked."

Fans of the competition expect precision. One fairgoer approached Primack to tell her that the table arranged for a tablescaping seminar that evening was all wrong.

"The knives are pointing outside," the woman said. "You're going to stab someone."

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A great, creative table setter not only knows what to buy but also how to craft objects. Marie discovered crafting after graduating from high school, when she opened a gift shop in Culver City with her twin sister. She later moved to Rancho Cucamonga and became a real estate agent -- but the crafting continued. She passed her passion on to Christel, teaching her how to make candleholders, Amish peg boards and painted flower pots.

They came across the tablescaping exhibit at the fair 11 years ago and were immediately hooked.

"We could do better, or at least equal," thought Christel, an attorney who specializes in workers' compensation disputes.

Nothing was ever quite the same -- especially during the spring and summer, when the pair begin hoarding their material.

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