Gaze upon the pale-stained kitchen cabinets. Open the doors. Behold individual plate racks and a vast vista of storage space. Brush your fingertips along the countertop--real charcoal granite. Look underneath: not one but two warming drawers.

Multi-level shower heads in the bathroom. No spot on the body shall remain undrenched. The living-room chandelier is an elegant maze of crystal and light. See how it glistens. The patio set invites guests to linger late on a warm summer evening.

This is Expo Design Center, which will open in Fairfax next week. It is the Home Depot for the rich, or for those who want to seem rich, created by that very company to display and sell home furnishings you didn't know you wanted.

"We're showing people something they've never seen before," said Expo President Bryant Scott.

Well, they probably have seen it, but for most people only in magazines--and certainly never in a superstore setting.

It's not impolite to ask what things cost: The granite countertop is $76 a square foot; the Schonbek chandelier $5,595. There's also a Northland refrigerator: $3,996. The Dunis hand-painted tiles are $145 apiece, and the gold-plated swan faucet is $731.

Expo is riding a wave of unprecedented consumption of luxury products as consumers save up and trade up across all income levels.

Most credit the strong economy and the stock market for the great revival of luxury goods. Some believe that super-spending by the super-rich is redefining "normal spending" by normal people, lifting it to new heights.

"The upper 20 percent has become a visible emulative target for people throughout the income distribution," said Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist and the author of "The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need." "The masses can't afford that lifestyle, but they're more likely to want to get whatever part of it they can."

Whatever the root cause, the effect is evident everywhere. For some, luxury is a $24.99 stainless-steel Michael Graves watering can from Target or a $99 cashmere sweater from Macy's. For others it's a $7,133 Viking range or a $4,800 Hermes handbag. Whatever the item, the message is the same: I want better, and I'm willing to pay more for it.

"During the time that we've been watching the economy grow and the stock market go up, we have noticed that people are pursuing luxurious items as they never have before," said Roberta Bernstein, a spokeswoman for tony retailer Neiman Marcus.

That signal has not been lost on Home Depot, which has been tinkering with its Expo concept for seven years and recently decided to roll out the chain nationwide. It's planning to open 200 stores in the next six years.

"We felt the time was right," Scott said.

Right indeed.

The longest economic expansion in modern times and the lowest unemployment rate in decades is giving consumers that warm and secure feeling that encourages shopping. Strong, too, is the index of consumer confidence, which tends to go up as unemployment goes down. The index is currently perched at historically high levels--even among households with incomes below $15,000 a year.

"These are levels that we have not seen since the late '60s," said Lynn Franco, associate director of the consumer research center at the Conference Board in New York. While strong confidence doesn't always lead to an increase in spending, Franco said, it does make it more likely. It's also "a lot more likely" that people will buy durable, more expensive products, she said: "There's a willingness to go beyond the basic necessities of life."

At Expo, pretty much everything is beyond a basic necessity. After all, besides chefs and a few serious cooks, who really needs a stove with 20,000 Btu's of cooking power? But those high-end, high-priced ranges are a knockout at Expo's stores.

Scott said typical Expo customers are way beyond basic--they're looking for something they can "enjoy," like a $725 multi-spray shower system.

Retailers of all kinds are finding similar patterns. At Myer-Emco, the Rockville-based audio-visual chain, owners of million-dollar houses have always thought big, boosting the company's sales of high-end home theater systems. But today, even people who live in $300,000 houses "are definitely focusing on our products, where they didn't before," said company President John Myer.

And these consumers are not buying bottom-of-the-line equipment, either. Not too long ago, Myer said, his hottest product was a $350 home theater receiver. And now? It's the $1,000 model.

Myer ascribes much of this escalation to the by-now-familiar good-news twins--the humming economy and the soaring stock market.

But Myer said he has also noticed something new: young employees and executives from high-tech companies spending as though the sky's the limit. These newly rich--sometimes super-rich--"are coming in stroking 40-, 50-, 60-thousand-dollar checks," Myer said. "It's scary, because these are people who don't realize it's not always like this."

Such enthusiastic spending is having an interesting, if arguably unsettling, effect, according to Robert Frank, a Cornell University economist and the author of the book "Luxury Fever."

"There are vastly larger numbers of people with more money than before," he said. And, he pointed out, they are richer than they used to be, as earnings for the top 1 percent of the population have doubled in the past decade. More money has equaled more spending, and that has triggered ever-higher standards for what people further down the income ladder aspire to. And when those lower down manage to grab some of that luxury for themselves, the rich will scamper away to more exclusive territory.

For years, for example, granite countertops have been the ne plus ultra in kitchens for people of means. Then tract-house builders began offering granite as an upgrade, enabling the merely comfortable to buy in. So the rich have moved on. Now the hottest trend in high-end kitchen countertops is concrete, which has to be custom-poured and fabricated by a specialist. And when those become too widely dispersed among the middle class, the rich will rip apart their kitchens and start over again, continuing the lavish cycle.

Harvard economist Schor calls this an "upscaling of norms." Keeping up with the Joneses, she said, used to mean keeping up with neighbors of basically equal income levels. Now, though, people are trying to keep up with the Rockefellers.

But why? Schor argues that our television culture has made the rich more visible. Even the average American sitcom, she said, presents what are actually rich lifestyles, and suggests they are the norm for Middle America. The show "Friends" is a good example. The characters don't work in particularly lucrative professions, but Monica and Rachel's Manhattan apartment would surely cost several thousand dollars a month.

"The more television a person watches, the more money they spend and the less money they save," Schor said. "People are more likely to overestimate what the average American has. They get a bias in their perception of reality, so I argue it leads them to an upward bias in their sense of what's normal."

The playthings of the rich are more on display elsewhere as well. Carolyn Thomas, a bathroom designer with Town & Country Baths in Washington, said the growing number of home decorating--or "shelter"--magazines has raised people's awareness of luxury faucets and fixtures. So have the luxury hotels that are filled to capacity nationwide. The boom in tourism has created a boomlet in bathroom renovations, she said, with even little projects getting more sumptuous.

"Staying in luxury hotels seems to really make an impression on people who have standard 1940s bathrooms," she said. "It's like a consciousness-raising experience. That has just been really amazing."

It is this dynamic that makes Expo possible--and company executives know it. Kitchens and baths are Expo's bread and butter, and the chain's showrooms are like a 3-D home decor magazine, where you can not only see but also touch and feel the elegant cabinetry and European appliances. It's the ability to browse, to check prices, to touch and feel that will make people buy what Expo sells, Scott says.

Historically, many of the high-end products Expo sells have been available only in small showrooms or design centers. But some people find such places intimidating, forcing them to work closely with a salesperson or designer and eventually to have to swallow hard and ask, "How much?" That can be an especially uncomfortable situation for those splurging on a luxury product they are stretching to afford.

At Expo, where everything has a price tag on it, anyone can go from fancy faucet to fancy faucet and privately stack their fantasies against the realities of their checkbooks.

Most industry experts think this kind of exposure will do for high-end home decor what self-service did for groceries decades ago. At first, grocers were afraid that self-service would cause people to stop shopping. Instead, consumers bought more.

"We think the market is going to expand overall," Scott said. Some people, to be sure, will use Expo as place to research, and then go back to their neighborhood showroom or design center and order by catalogue. And that's fine, Scott said. He's confident that plenty of people will pony up at Expo's own cash registers.

Expo is not alone in its effort to bring luxury to the masses. Luxury manufacturers of all kinds are trying to reach people further down the income spectrum. Today you can buy Martha Stewart linens at Kmart and cappuccino at McDonald's. Mercedes-Benz's lowest-priced car is now $31,200, and you can drive off in a BMW for as little as $26,900. And there are more and more cruise ships making what was once a dream vacation for the rich into a relaxing staple for virtually anyone.

Companies are "seeing there are a lot more people with a little bit more money to spend, and they're saying, 'How do we get into their pockets?' " said Mike Fetters, executive vice president of Hadco, a distributor of luxury home appliances.

Beyond what economist Frank sees as a "fever" for luxury, some consumer experts see the American shopper's growing desire for quality as well as more refined tastes. Even stores as basic--and as relentlessly middle-middle-class--as Montgomery Ward have overhauled their look and raised the quality of their merchandise.

"Companies like Martha Stewart and Crate & Barrel have raised the taste level of the average person who isn't necessarily so interested in visual things," said Bernstein of Neiman Marcus. "They've just established a higher standard of what things should look like. . . . The taste level of every American is higher than it's ever been, and growing."

All of which told Home Depot executives it was the right time to expand Expo.

In the better-to-best range of home appliances and decor, "there really hasn't been a central place to go," said retail analyst Donald Trott with Brown Brothers Harriman in New York. Expo, which picks up where Home Depot ends, "definitely fills a niche," he said.

The approach appears to be working. Expo stores open at least a year have been showing double-digit sales increases for a couple of years.

As Home Depot plans the national rollout of this upscale division, company executives must be wondering if the yen for luxury will last and be broad enough to eventually support 200 or so stores across the country.

Harvard economist Frank believes the bar will keep getting higher. In New York, he points out, the top 10 percent of earners make 20 times what the bottom 10 percent make, but in other areas of the country the disparity isn't nearly so great. So "there's a long way to go," Frank said, in the growing separation between rich and poor.

The aging of the baby boomers could also be good for Expo. Many of these consumers are through spending lavishly on their wardrobes and their cars--now the focus is their homes. And they want to buy the highest quality they can, like a restaurant-quality stove.

To Frank, this is understandable--and an inevitable step to yet higher standards.

"This stuff is very nice stuff--it's better than the other stuff," Frank said. "This much is true, though: Once everyone has one of these stoves, it won't seem so special anymore."

In Profile


Business: A division of Home Depot selling high-end interior design items and offering full-service design expertise.

Founded: 1991

Based: Atlanta

Stores: Store locations include San Diego; Atlanta; Westbury, N.Y.; Dallas; Miami; Davie, Fla.; Boynton Beach, Fla.; and Plano, Tex.

Expo plans to have 200 stores in North America by 2005. Fairfax store opens next week.

SOURCE: Expo Design Center

CAPTION: The Expo Design Center in Fairfax takes aim at high-end kitchens and baths with, clockwise from above, stylish sinks; a $500 shower head; faucets; glass tiles; and accessories.

CAPTION: At the Home Depot Expo in Boynton Beach, Fla., sales associate Babe Quintero shows Cheryl Boyer some ideas for lighting for her daughter's wedding.

CAPTION: A high-tech, high-end kitchen awaits buyers--and gawkers--at Home Depot Expo's Fairfax store, which is scheduled to open next week.

CAPTION: Touring a kitchen at an Expo in Florida.