TORONTO — At worst, misplacing a spoon on the dining room table would probably draw a finger wag for etiquette, but in the cutthroat world of competitive table setting, the faux-pas can be a fast-track to an embarrassing defeat.
But there is something to be said about a stunning table setting, as documentarian Scott Gawlik shows in his film "Set!" which premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival last week.
The filmmaker has been living on the edge of a knife – and fork – for the past few years as he put together his colourful and comedic documentary that pulls back the cloth on "tablescaping," a competitive subculture that thrives at local fairs.
"I grew up listening to punk rock," said Gawlik. "I had never considered table setting to be an art form — and now I don't see it as anything else."
"Set!" follows an offbeat cast of characters who are dressing their tables to impress a pair of top-secret judges as they vie for a "best of show" ribbon at California’s Orange County Fair.
One of the competitors is tablescaping provocateur Hilarie Moore, who consistently raises eyebrows and ruffles feathers with her conversation pieces. One year, her table was stacked with blue-tinted trash to draw attention to polluted oceans, while for another she displayed a collection of animal taxidermy in a statement against poaching in Africa. They're hardly traditional looks for dinnertime.
"I like to have them love my table, but sometimes if they hate it that might even be better," she said in an interview.
While family gatherings are still off-limits in most of Canada, Moore suggested it's never too early to consider ways to make a splash at your next event.
She dished out five tips to The Canadian Press that she says will make your table decor an epic showstopper:
1) Never Use Your First Idea
Whether you’re chasing a blue ribbon at the local fair or hoping to impress a party down the road, don’t embrace the first concept that pops into your head, even if it seems like a gem. "Just forget it," Moore said, "Because it's probably the same as everybody else's 'great idea.'" Once you've settled on a theme, pull together materials from less obvious sources. "You’ve got to shop for the weird stuff on eBay, go to antique stores and old thrift shops," she suggested. "And please, for God's sake, stay away from the dollar store."
2) Always Make a Statement
A table that sticks is a table that clicks, so know your audience. Moore once rankled the judges by decorating her table with freeze-dried mice dressed in tiny outfits, an idea that sent ripples through the tablescaping community. "The worst thing you can do is create a table that's totally forgettable, you know, really vanilla-beige-boring," she said. "You’ve got to have some kind of pizzazz."
More recently, she designed a spread for her three-year-old granddaughter’s birthday that incorporated the girl’s love of dinosaurs with the timeliness of the Easter holiday. "I had little dinosaur figures holding Easter eggs and a Godzilla guy eating Peeps," she said. "It was a weird juxtaposition, but we managed to do it."
3) Don’t Lean on Pinterest
Social media can offer plenty of ideas to chew on, but it’s also a bottomless pool of unoriginality and copycats. Moore tries to log off Pinterest, the popular visual social platform, when dreaming up her concepts. "Looking up stuff on Pinterest, to me, defeats the creative process," she said. "It's the equivalent of having a stylist dress you for the Academy Awards – and I think that would be a much more interesting program if everybody just dressed themselves."
4) Tap Into Your Inner Weirdo
Often the best ideas are the least conventional ones. Moore is an enthusiastic advocate for pushing the boundaries, which she says often pays off in spades. "If you can inject a little bit of humour or weirdness, people will respond and appreciate it," she said. One year, she approached a table concept dubbed the "Afterlife Picnic" with a decidedly grim premise. "I bought all these cute little fairy dolls, and then took a hacksaw and cut their heads off and replaced them with tiny little animal skulls that I spray-painted gold," she said.
5) Decorate Because It’s Fun
Table settings can be a canvas for your creativity, just make sure you’re participating for the right reasons. "I do this to entertain myself because if I get a laugh or chuckle (from) my table, other people might too," Moore said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the designs can also light a spark of joy in your household if you start poking around the storage shelves, she said. "Look around your house and see what you've already got and just drag it all out. Dig out the good china and grandma's silver and just go for it … Every possible thing that you can celebrate, make it a celebration."
"Set!" is available as part of Hot Docs, which runs until May 9. The films are available to viewers across Canada through hotdocs.ca.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021.