By Stephanie Finnegan
When Stephane Pepin, known by the name of “Stephen,” was a young boy in Montreal, Canada, a cold climate and wintry weather were a natural part of life. With the ushering in of the snowy season and the arrival of Christmas, young Stephen’s days were spent bolstering himself against the blustery outdoors and at night “watching the glow of the colored lights in the snow at the front” of his house.
Those childhood memories of how a decorated home could brighten the holidays have stayed with Pepin throughout the passing decades. After receiving a degree in engineering, and working in Toronto and Vancouver, the Canadian relocated to Arizona in 1999. From a country known for its lush white winter landscapes to a state revered for its deserts, canyons, and more arid climes, Pepin is not afraid to move from one extreme to another. This versatility has helped him in his personal as well as professional life.
A born collector and artisan, even as a child, young Stephen would go to his family’s basement and build new burgs and burbs. “My father would set up plywood sheets measuring 8 feet by 4 feet. I would build my own little towns with miniature cars and houses. I would build mountains out of papier-mâché. During the holidays, I added miniature decorations to my little town.”
In 2003, at the age of 35, Pepin discovered the Department 56 line of collectible villages and accessories; his childhood inclination for setting up fictional neighborhoods and displaying holiday ornamentation came flooding back to him. Pepin realized he had a penchant for vignettes and a knack for arranging miniature houses and shrubbery!
“Upon discovering what I could do for village displays, I started creating them for others. Over time, it grew to creating a company, Showcase Displays, LLC. While I had been using the ‘Showcase Display’ name for about eight years, it formally became an LLC in early 2011. As I have a separate professional career in the information technology field, the display business is a part-time vocation, but it’s of increasing importance,” Pepin asserts.
The father of two children—aged 7 and 10—the showcasing and displaying avocation has grown to become a family affair. His daughter acts as his “assistant” during the display classes that he teaches, and his knack for building, setting up, and arranging has extended beyond the private homes of enthusiasts: “Up until early 2011, the display work that I performed was solely for private collectors. I was then connected to Millie’s Hallmark in Phoenix through the area Department 56 representative, who informed me that they might need my help. Millie’s immediately became a special client for me. While I am not a staff member of Millie’s, I feel like I am!”
At the specialty store, Pepin has been asked to bring his keen eye and meticulous attention to detail to designing an expansive Fontanini display. Having been raised and educated in the Catholic school system—where Bible movie epics were standard welcome fare—Pepin jumped at the chance to become a smaller-scale Cecil B. DeMille. All of his cinematic recollections of The Robe, Ben-Hur, or King of Kings came flooding back as he rose to the challenge of setting up the integral parts of Jesus’ birth story.
“When asked to create a display, like the Fontanini display I made for Millie’s, I typically like to understand the inventory of the pieces to be displayed, and create scenes that will incorporate all the pieces. For example, there will be a market scene, a road scene, a rural or farming scene, and, of course, a Nativity scene. All scenes are then seamlessly integrated together to create a single display. Sometimes in my own display, I build a short story about what is going on at this precise time in the village, and I challenge the kids to find certain items. It is a great way to teach them to look for details and appreciate them.”
The undertaking for Millie’s Fontanini display equaled a full work week: “It took about 40 hours to do, as it is a larger and more complex build combining foam carving and plaster cloth scenery. It was designed for the specific set of pieces to be displayed, but it can allow for flexibility based on pieces to be retired and new pieces to be introduced. If needed, a portion of the display can be modified based upon future needs, as my larger displays are built in sections.” His arrangements and vision have netted him more than just kudos and applause. Pepin’s setup at Millie’s has garnered him recognition as the “Display of the Year,” and will be featured in an upcoming Fontanini catalog.
It isn’t often that people grow up to do exactly what they enjoyed doing as children—if so, the whole world would be populated by ballerinas and ball players, professional skateboarders and gymnasts. Pepin is that rare exception who is getting to do exactly what he would hope to do: living out his childhood hobby. Because of his deep, sincere connection to his artistry, he also fills his home with his handiwork and craftsmanship. “My home Fontanini display was a much simpler project built entirely from foam that was carved with a bow cutter and a sculpting tool. It took less than four hours to create it. Nonetheless, I am pleased with the job it is doing in terms of showcasing my Fontanini pieces. The top part of the display is comprised of removable pieces that I use as a vignette for a Department 56 Easter piece. Since storage space is a concern for many people, including myself, I try to be innovative in terms of using a display in multiple ways,” Pepin explains.
“My Fontanini collection is relatively small still, with 15 pieces. plus landscaping items. It includes a six-piece manger scene, market structures with their characters, additional accessories and characters, as well as a variety of animals. Taking into account all of the village collecting that I do, I try to grow my Fontanini collection at a reasonable pace. I plan to add two market pieces this year, along with additional figures and animals,” the designer calculates. Recently, Pepin added the figure of “Gera,” the village cook, to his home collection, and the acquisition had special significance because it was signed by Emanuele Fontanini, whom Pepin met in person.
These “supporting players” who populate the Fontanini setups add a lot of flavor and authenticity to the Bethlehem re-creations. “The characters relating to a market scene appeal to me a lot. The structures combined with their respective figures really give me a sense of the daily lives of the people back in those days,” Pepin affirms.
Since it can be daunting to set up a home display—especially when a bustling family is cavorting and celebrating around it—Pepin has some sound suggestions for protecting and preserving, while still being crowd-pleasing.
“My biggest advice for safeguard starts with height: build a display high enough that is enjoyable to adults, but hard to reach by young children. My kids have full access to my displays, as I want this tradition to be for everyone to enjoy in my home. However, I strategically position more fragile or cherished pieces out of reach, and place ‘playable’ pieces to the front. Height can also safeguard against animals, if it can be out of reach to jump on.”
When dealing with Fontanini, it is easy for a collector to start having his or her collection sprawl across sideboards, dining-room tables, and all other flat surfaces. Since the “Greatest Story Ever Told” is being paid homage to, large and big and epic seem to be the buzzwords of the day. Pepin explains that doesn’t have to be the case.
“Going back to my comment about how I create larger displays by integrating multiple scenes together, these scenes can also be displayed effectively by themselves around the house,” he maintains. “You can, for example, create a storyline but showing scenes from room to room as you are touring visitors around your house. It is a fun way to understand the full picture, yet enjoy each scene even more.”
No matter the dimensions of the tableaux, the Fontanini figures embody the wonder and the majesty of the birth of Jesus. And the impact of that infant continues to be immeasurable and far-reaching.