Custom-posed mannequins. Cut-out wood panels. Hand-painted wood screens. Eight-foot tall floral arrangements. Salt floors.

Dining literally reached new heights at this year's DIFFA Dining by Design Detroit event, an annual fundraiser for the Michigan AIDS Coalition. Held last weekend inside the former federal reserve building on West Fort Street in Detroit, thousands turned out to oogle 25 over-the-top dining installations created by designers, event planners, artists, students, architects, and florists.

And they weren't disappointed. From the installation that featured four custom-posed mannequins (two of which were actually under the table, peeking at diners while they ate) to another that looked like a wedding party gone awry with tables suspended in mid-air, the installations were all about fantasy, whimsy and imagination.

"It's a creative outlet and we have fun doing it, but the cause is really what draws us here," says Shane Pliska, president of Planterra.

For designers, "what's fun for them is there are no rules," says Shanthi Sivanandham, the Michigan AIDS Coalition's development and special events coordinator. "One of the biggest question I get is who is the client and what are the specifications. Here, you have no client, the specification comes from your heart. You get to show what you can do."

DIFFA — which stands for Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS — started in 1984 as the HIV/AIDS crisis was just getting started. With local chapters now in place throughout the country, it's raised more than $38 million for AIDS organizations. DIFFA Dining by Design Detroit has just marked its fifth year and has raised more than $500,000.

Some installations were deeply personal. Leslie Ann Pilling, owner of Presence II Productions, an experiential public relations firm, worked with Detroit artist Phillip Simpson on a custom made painting called "The Smile Brand." It was inspired by her father, Dr. Arnold Remington Pilling, who died of AIDS 20 years ago.

He never really smiled before coming out, but after he did, "because he was being true to himself, he started smiling," Pilling says.

Below is a compilation of some of my favorite installations, all of which have aspects that could certainly be emulated in a home tablescape (though on a smaller scale, of course). Enjoy!

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Scott Shuptrine Interiors: Luxury endures

Whitney Kane, a designer with Scott Shuptrine Interiors, says her goal was to embody her employer's motto: Luxury endures. Mixing colors and textures, she used a dining room table by Century Furniture with an emerald green tabletop which popped against the Christian Lacroix dinner places. "I wanted something really strong to contrast with everything — to bring a little more interest" to the space. A fuzzy bench made of Tibetan lamb wool flanked one end of the table and added texture to the space. Metal napkin rings by Nathalie Du Pasquier were donated by fellow Scott Shuptrine designer Tom Verwest. "I wanted to create a very luxurious but timeless space," Kane says.

Rossetti Architects: A continuum of nature

Talk about a labor of love. Alana Buynak, a designer with Rosetti Architects, broke her toe creating her installation with fellow designer Sam Stevens when a piece of plywood fell on her foot last week. "I'll go to the doctor tomorrow," she joked last Thursday. Using plywood to create a table and two benches painted black like soil, the installation looked like it had emerged right from the earth. "We wanted to create one continuous landscape, almost like we'd uprooted it — pulled sections of it upward," Buynak says. A tree, lugged out of the woods near Buynak's home in White Lake Township and painted white, perched over one end of the installation. "We call it the Franken-tree," she says. "We cut it into pieces and reassembled it. There's actually brackets holding it together." Pieces of slate served as the plates, and a row of succulents ran down the table's center.

dPop: An ode to Detroit

From the bed of salt on the ground — which paid homage to the city's vast underground salt mines — to the suspended window panes with prints of iconic locations, nearly every aspect of dPop's installation oozed Detroit. "The focus is the future of Detroit," says Jennifer Baross, dPop's curator of all things creative. Plates at each place setting were etched with images of Detroiters and house numbers hung from the window panes to reflect the city's neighborhoods. Inside the window panes, which were from Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, were mirrors (to reflect light), flowers by Fleur Detroit, and artistic renderings showing the city's future.

Planterra: Expect the unexpected

Diners eating at Planterra's fantasy-filled installation were likely caught off guard if they peered through the glass panel at each end of the table: two mannequins were positioned under the table. The mannequins, reassembled, enhanced and repositioned by Planterra's design team, were actually the starting point for the design, says David DiVincenzo, Planterra's director of events. "We didn't think of it as a traditional dining experience," he says. It certainly isn't. Along with the mannequins under the table, another wearing a masquerade mask stood as the table's centerpiece, along with a fourth off to the side, surrounded by poppies. With a mostly white tablescape, small orange protea flowers and orange cloth napkins added a jolt of color.

Rariden Schumacher Mio, Michelle Mio and Jill Schumacher: Groovy baby

There were quiet, zen installations, and then there was the explosion of color and pattern in the display by Michelle Mio and Jill Schumacher of Rariden Schumacher Mio Interior Design, who created one of DIFFA's boldest installations this year. Their starting point was a Larson modern crewel that enveloped three walls around their table. "We loved the depth and saturation of the deep plum and gold," says designer Jill Schumacher. "We felt it had a very 1960s James Bond-esque look, so we went with it and decided to spray the table Saffron and the inside of the light fixture Gold Leaf." Huge, bold flower arrangements were put together by Delux Floral. Bright gold piping on the pillows was "a nod to the groovy metallic booties from the '60s, think Austin Powers!" says Schumacher. "We wanted the colors to really grab you as you walked by." Mission accomplished.

Fleur Detroit: Orchid-filled oasis

Surrounded by all white orchids, walls, potted trees and old doors, Fleur Detroit's Darin Lenhardt created one of DIFFA Detroit's most zen installations — the kind of space where you'd want to eat and then nap because it felt so peaceful. White orchids figured prominently throughout the space, hanging from trees, in vases and nestled on each place setting. On the round marble dining table — the only installation with a round table, in fact — large, ceramic hands served as candleholders.

Hobbs + Black Architects: 'Enjoy Detroit'

The iconic sign said it all: "Enjoy Detroit." Printed on a faux brick wall by Paragon Design and Display in Ann Arbor (you've probably seen it at the Design Shoppe at Somerset), it was the backdrop for Hobbs + Black Architects' installation, which had an urban picnic concept, says architect Bob Hoida. Wood and other natural elements figured prominently, including two plywood trees, laced with lights. The trees were anchored in the middle of two slabs of a beautiful cherry tree trunk provided by Tree-Purposed Detroit. The 80-year-old tree from West Bloomfield Township, damaged in a storm, spent nearly a year in the Tree-Purposed shop and kilns "drying and preparing them for a new use," said Hoida in an email. "Tree-Purposed transformed what would have been urban waste material into live edge slabs of wood ready for use." Burlap napkins rested atop each place setting with a sprig of rosemary tucked inside.

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