Discovering the World of Tablescaping in HGTV’s ‘Table Wars’ with creators Derek Helwig and Hunter Johnson

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Table Wars, a new HGTV competition series, explores the artistry of tablescaping and is hosted by Tamera Mowry-Housley with Martha Stewart serving as lead judge. The show has been recently talked about on Jimmy Fallon and the Kelly Clarkson Show during appearances from Martha Stewart and Tamera Mowry-Housley, and is generating lots of buzz among HGTV fans!

The creators behind developing and producing this show are Derek Helwig (previously known for his work on The Amazing Race) and Hunter Johnson who serve as VP of Development and CEO of Xpedition.

Derek and Hunter discovered a whole world of tablescaping that had been largely unexplored on TV. Recently, they spoke with ProductionHUB about the journey of creating Table Wars from the early stages of going to tablescaping events at fairs to selling the show to HGTV to casting contestants from all different areas of expertise. 

PH: Hi Derek and Hunter! How are you both? What has kept you busy the last few months? 

Hunter: Doing great. We’ve been busy developing new shows and starting a podcast division. I’ve been fascinated by MasterClass and have taken a bunch of new cooking classes and pretend I can actually cook a meal that doesn’t give my friends food poisoning.

Derek: It’s been busy both professionally and personally. Continually developing new projects all while balancing a new baby and learning to be a father.

PH: Can you share your background and some of your favorite (or most memorable) projects you've been able to work on? 

Hunter: Prior to starting Xpedition, I worked in TV Development at Sony Pictures Television (Breaking Bad and Shark Tank) and later went on to produce on shows including MasterChef and MasterChef Jr, Big Brother, Street Outlaws, in addition to many others for major networks such as HBO, HGTV, FOX, CBS, CW, Discovery, and History.

In 2016 I founded Xpedition, an award-winning creative agency and entertainment company at the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, blending emotional storytelling with a data-centric approach. 

Derek: Before joining Xpedition, I was fortunate enough to produce on a variety of different TV shows, getting to travel all over. Most notably, I spent 12 seasons at The Amazing Race, getting to travel all over the world, working with a variety of different local production teams. I then went on to produce series like Best Bars in America (Esquire), United Shades of America (CNN) and Ultimate Expedition (YouTube Originals).

PH: Let's get into your most recent venture, Table Wars. First, let's start with how the concept came about. What made you think of a show like this? 

Hunter: Our team prides ourselves on developing ideas that at first might seem offbeat but have surprisingly large fan bases and broad appeal. A member of our team pitched the idea of a tablescaping documentary and we thought: ‘what would this look like as a competition series?’ The world of tablescaping is inherently competitive, whether you’re competing for a blue ribbon at a local county fair or competing to impress luxury event clients. Table Wars takes tablescaping to the next level. 

PH: Can you explain tablescaping? 

Derek: Tablescaping is something that has been around for centuries and is truly a unique artform of designing a table setting for a meal. Traditionally, you can watch something like Downton Abbey when they sit down to a meal and all the dinnerware is laid out to perfection. In more recent years though, it’s turned into a competition you can see a lot at county fairs where a theme is given and it's up to the competitor to create a design for how their table will look and are judged on creativity and proper etiquette. For Table Wars, we wanted a show that drew from these competitions and have our designers create elaborate setups and builds. They truly created amazing works of art.

PH: This has been in the works for awhile, right? Can you talk about your journey to getting the show made? How did it start out? 

Hunter: We were lucky enough to have great partners at ITV and Leftfield that understood our idea immediately and believed that a competition show about tablescaping could really be a hit. The show was sold straight to series at the end of 2019, but due to the pandemic didn’t actually go into production until the Spring of 2021. Production during this time isn’t easy, so we’re incredibly grateful for the hard work the contestants, hosts, and crew put in to make this show a reality. 

PH: You also got to bring on Tamera Mowry-Housley and Martha Stewart—two very well-known people who are definitely interesting to watch! What do they each bring to the show? 

Hunter: Martha is one of the most influential people when it comes to hosting and entertaining. I think one of our contestants said it the best, “Martha is the GOAT.” She brings instant validity to the show and her critiques come from years of expertise. Tamera is really amazing and brings such positive energy. Even when delivering the news that someone has been eliminated, she does so with empathy and passion that makes the show feel great. And also need to mention Chris Hessney, he is an amazing designer and an expert in everything from big picture event planning all the way to the micro-details that make a tablescape special. 

PH: Can you share some secrets behind the process of making something like this come to life (that most of us don't ever get to hear about?) 

Derek: For us, it was all about having fun. As we sat around the table, we were constantly thinking of table puns that we could name a challenge or format of the show after. One of the ones we were most proud of that actually made it in every episode was calling the place they get all their supplies to build with, the “Table of Contents.” Our partners at Leftfield Pictures felt that same fun energy I think and really helped bring that to life in the show. The more fun you can have with a show concept, the more the creative juices start flowing and invested into an idea you get as a producer. If you tap into that, you develop a passion and that passion really is contagious.

PH: Why will Discovery+ fans love it?

Hunter: The “wow” moments when each table is revealed is a highlight - it’s incredible to see each table go from a sketch in a journal to a blank piece of plywood to the final work of art. Additionally, it’s hard not to be inspired by the tablescapes on the show - the contestants share great tips and tricks along the way that viewers can take home for their own tablescape adventures.  

PH: Can you share what else you've got in the works? Future projects? Life endeavors? 

Derek: We are working on some pretty fun ideas, I’ll say, though can’t be specific for obvious reasons, but are getting pretty close to being announced. What is important for us is to continue to develop across genres. We love doing competition formats and have some really fun ones on the horizon that we can’t wait to talk about. We also have some great documentary projects and docu-series in the works. We also recently opened our podcast division so are really excited about exploring the types of stories we can tell in that medium. Regardless of the genre or medium, we love collaborating with other producers and creatives, we are open to hearing new pitches and we pride ourselves in forming great partnerships.

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