On your mark, get set … set the table?

Competitive tablescaping isn't a race, but it is a competition — one that's been held at the LA County Fair since the 1930s. It’s so popular that there’s a waiting list to enter the competition; only 20 competitors are allowed each year.

Those 20 competitors spend months brainstorming color schemes, poring over linens, debating menu options (the tablescape must include a printed menu for a meal) and choosing dishes and flatware to create a prize-winning table.

First place in this year's LA County Fair tablescaping competition went to Bonnie Overman.
First place in this year's LA County Fair tablescaping competition went to Bonnie Overman. (Photo: LA County Fair)

The top prize is Best of Show, which this year went to the table (or is that a bed?) pictured at the top of the page. It comes complete with faux poultry, the morning paper and some very inviting pillows.

The first place winner (shown directly above) was Bonnie Overman, a 20-year veteran of the contest, who this year designed a beach wedding-themed tablescape with a blush palette.

"I love it, it’s a once-a-year thing I do," says Overman of the LA County Fair tablescaping competition. "It’s a four-month process, and I agonize over everything. When you're a creative person there are so many possibilities!" Luckily, she says, her husband is a good sport who helps her edit, critique and make decisions about her entry.

Tablescaping has been part of the LA County Fair every year since the 1930s.
This entry under the theme 'Imagination' did not win a prize at the tablescaping contest, which has been part of the LA County Fair every year since the 1930s. (Photo: LA County Fair)

"Anybody who does this is a little cuckoo because it’s a lot of work. Most of us work full-time too," says Overman. "We’re serious, we work hard, we sweat over this and we put a lot of hours into it."

Overman, who is a licensed optician and has a busy day job in the optical field, says she was inspired to create this particular table by two weddings she attended earlier this year.

"I had decorated my own wedding 17 years ago, but now I was really into how all the young people are doing it their own way. It’s not the standard weddings with over-the-top stuff," she says. "I knew I wanted to do a wedding and that I wanted to go pastel. I love the color blush, so I thought, why don’t I do a beach wedding?"

This table focused on the competition's 'Through the Looking Glass' theme.
This table focused on the competition's 'Through the Looking Glass' theme. (Photo: LA County Fair)

Contestants are offered a choice of three themes — Wonderful World of Magic, And the Beat Goes On and Through the Looking Glass — or the option to enter a table under a more general "Imagination" theme.

Setting up the tables is no easy task. Overman says they have four hours to put the table together at the fair, where this year the temperature rose to 104 degrees — with no air conditioning — as contestants ran to and from the parking area lugging supplies.

Second place went to Victoria Genin for this table with the theme, 'And the Beat Goes On.'
Second place went to Victoria Genin for this table with the theme, 'And the Beat Goes On.' (Photo: LA County Fair)

Each table is judged under several criteria, according to Overman, including creativity, originality, use of color, interpretation of theme, presentation and correctness. Judges may deduct points for a misplaced wine glass, for example, or a typo on a menu option.

Overman says despite having been knocked for both of those mistakes in the past (she says she once misspelled pinot grigio), she still has several Best of Show and first prize ribbons under her belt — or rather, on her wall, where they hang framed with photos of the winning tables to remind her to "keep doing creative things," she says.

This table in the 'Imagination' category didn't take home a prize.
This colorful Mardi Gras-inspired table in the 'Imagination' category didn't take home a prize. (Photo: LA County Fair)

Overman has been decorating tablescapes for so long that if you name a theme, especially a play or a movie, she likely has designed a table around it. Her first Best of Show tablescape had a vineyard theme (she called it "Days of Wine and Roses"), but other themes included "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Out of Africa," "Maleficent," "Gone With the Wind," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Wicked." (The bubbling cauldron she incorporated into the "Wicked" table is now part of her extensive home Halloween decorations, which she puts up at the beginning of September.)

This table was entered under the 'Wonderful World of Magic' theme.
This table was entered under the 'Wonderful World of Magic' theme. (Photo: LA County Fair)

Overman, who is from Hacienda Heights, California, says the tablescape competition is one of the most popular events at the fair. "This is tablescaping — we’re supposed to have fun and be creative. To me, it’s entertainment at the fair. People love to come and look at the tables, even the guys," she says.

The winning tables were declared at the start of the LA County Fair, which runs through Sept. 24.