NO MATTER how much the modernist may mutter, design is going from plain to fancy. Once again we may be in peril of living in wall-papered bowers of wavy bamboo and silvery birds.

No one is about to suggest that we're all going to be wallpapered floor-to-ceiling. On the other hand, there are more different kinds of wallpaper available than ever before to tempt the decorator.

Hundreds of companies in the United States make wallpaper. In many small studios the papers are silkscreened by hand. Others use woodblocks to print designs. Some artists paint the entire paper by hand. Big companies print designs mechanically. The price varies accordingly. Wallpaper comes in flat, textured and metallic designs.

The washability of today's wallpapers -- most are coated with vinyl or another plastic coating -- are the principal reason for their popularity. And today's pre-pasted, pre-trimmed papers are easier than ever for the novice to put up.

Interior designers such as Washington's Bob Waldron and Suzanne Shaw are spending a great deal of their time and their clients' money on wallpaper.

Waldron says the great advantage to wallpapers, "especially in an office, is that it's easy to clean. You can scrub it. One client insisted on paint, but after having to repaint twice, he decided I was right about paper the first time."

Even in hospitals, some white walls are giving away to wallpaper. In Children's Hospital's new buildings, for instance, many corridor walls are wallpapered with a scrubable Walltex covering.

Shaw likes the coordinated flower bower look of matching wallpaper and curtains. "With custom printing, you can have a house that's totally different from anyone else's. It's a way of giving you something of your own."

The townhouse revival and the interest in historic preservation has been a large spur to a renewed interest in wallpapers. Many restorers want to bring their houses back to period decor. Others use patterned and textured wallpaper because it hides plaster irregularities much better than paint. And, of course, there is a growing interest in traditional design.

Laura Ashley, Inc., for instance, makes English country designs that are currently quite popular -- the new colors in the 1979 collection are soft blues, creamy apricots, ochre and silvery grey.Fabrics match the wallpaper. The wallpaper sells for about $10.50 a yard.

Wallpaper today is often used on doors and ceilings as well. Expensive mural papers are often hung just on one side, for emphasis (and to save money). Wallpaper is sometimes continued up to the ceiling from the walls. In other homes, walls are plain or painted in contrast to a dramatically patterned ceiling.

The newest idea in wallcoverings currently are the photomural papers-fabric. Several companies are making wallpaper enlarged from photographs of scenic wonders. Several big film processing companies, including locally Campbell Photo Service, Photo Graphics and James Dunlop Inc., among others, can make up wallsized photo murals from your own photo.

Photomurals are in great use currently by museums -- the National Gallery in the King Tut show, and the Renwick Gallery in several exhibits, for instance. Washington designer Milo Hoots is currently working on a huge photographic mural for a hallway of Computer Brokerage. Eventually, such blowups may be used in homes. The cost is not cheap, a 3 1/2-by-8-foot panel in black and white can start at about $60.

Say wallpaper, and at least three-fourths of the people will think of a Chinese design -- a bird on a flowering branch against a pale pink or silver background. Real Chinese design and chinoiserie (western interpretations of Chinese motifs) are back in favor. Every time China reopens its doors, there is a new Chinese revival.

Gracie, a New York company, is a prime name in Oriental wallcoverings. Gracie provided the handsome and unusual wallpaper in a jungle motif that decorates Blair House. The same pattern also was used in the American Embassy in London.

"It's an old Chinese Export paper," said Gracie vice president Paul Keljikian. "We specialize in copies of 18th-century Chinese papers -- trees, flowers and birds, no repeats. They are hand-painted for us in Hong Kong."

After the Chinese communist takeover, many Chinese wallpaper painters set up in Hong Kong.

In New York, the 15 artists on the Gracie staff turn out Japanese murals, American scenics and copies of the mid 19th-century French masters: Zuber, Dufour and Leroy.

"Some of the old original hand-blocked papers used 14 to 16 different color blocks. Today no one uses more than three or four," Keljikian said. A different wood block is needed for each color. Each has to be applied in turn. So the old papers are much more elaborately colored than the newer ones that use few blocks.

Gracie buys old wallpaper, removed (How? "Carefully") from old houses here and abroad. Often such papers were laid down upon several layers of lining papers or on burlap, making it possible to remove them. Gracie takes the papers, backs them with muslin, paints in any detail damaged and resells them.

"Currently we have a gorgeous antique Chinese paper, dark green with an off-white bamboo trellis. It is priced at $40,000 for 30 to 40 running feet," Keljikian said.

An interesting collection of scenic papers made by Louis W. Bowen Inc. comes from Waldron's wallpaper file. One of the prettier ones is eight hand-painted idyllic panels "The Monuments of Washington, D.C." by Lanette Scheeline.

Last year, Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York auctioned an 18th-century Chinese wallpaper showing exotic polychromed birds on fruiting and flowering branches against a green ground for about $7,250, considerably more than its presale estimate.

Waldron uses Gracie's papers often. Recently he chose a Gracie Chinese paper with Carole Cladouhos for the Cladouhos dining room to set off the Baccarat crystal chandelier. Carole and Harry Cladouhos enlarged their house near Westmoreland Circle with the design of architect Thomas O'Riley.

Waldron, who recently worked on the Japanese Embassy, suggested grass cloth for the library, a bold flowery print for the breakfast room and a slicker geometric for the swimming pool changing room and bath. In the master bath a custom-colored paper is used. But in the boy's room, Carole Cladouhos specified a textured paper, "because I knew Peter (16) would cover it with posters anyway."

Suzanne Shaw has used a great deal of wallpaper in her own home off Foxhall Road. Shaw often suggests custom colors and designs to her customers in matching fabric and wallpaper.

"For my own dining room and front hall, I took a flower motif from an old Indian embroidery. It looks quite different in a darker background color in the hall." The paper was made by Zina Studios in Port Chester, N.Y., owned by a royal Russian immigrant, a descendant of Catherine the Great. Shaw once worked in the screen printing studios.

"My forte is color. I remember once we were trying to match the china of some people in Texas. We did it over and over again, and they still said it was wrong. Finally, I realized, we had to judge the color by candlelight, since that was the light they most often compared the paper with the china."

In her cozy sitting room, Shaw uses a dark-brown pseudo-suede wall covering to make the room cozier.

Upstairs, in her studio, she enjoys pointing to a lilies-of-the-valley wallpaper she had made up years ago. Recently the design was used by Christian Dior for sheets.

Shaw doesn't think custom colors and designs are badly priced, First you have to pay a $100- $200 surcharge to have the special screen made. Then each roll of the wallpaper costs $30 to $32 in addition to the surcharge. Some saving can be made on the screen if the design becomes a part of the company's collection.

Chinese motifs are, of course, not all that is available. Walltex, a division of Columbus Coated Papers, sells mostly stripes in natural colors and flowers. The company's mass-produced designs are, of course, far cheaper than Gracie's, about $7 to $26 for a roll 27 inches wide, 5 1/3 yards long. Walltex design director Robert Capell likes the geometric designs.

Newest in these, Capell said, are the "softer metallics: pewter instead of shiny silver for instance, and I guess you could say vermeil is replacing brassy gold. About a third of our business is in textured papers instead of patterned. I'm happy that we don't sell as many imitation wood and brick patterns as we once did. American taste has improved.

"Though I'm sorry to say that it looks as though the whole world is going on a traditional binge. Everything has to go with knotty pine now. Lots of tiny florals."

Walltex, since all of its products are vinyl-coated paper or cloth, is often used in kitchens and baths, though they offer an equal number of designs for bedrooms and living rooms.

Walltex this year is offering four different collections, each with 40 different designs printed in three-color "ways" or combinations. Cappel sees hunter green, blue and burgundy as the upcoming colors.

General Tire and Rubber Co. has just put out a new "Precious Metals" collection with 35 patterns in traditional designs: Oriental, florals and geometrics. The material is scuff- and stain-resistant Mylar (a plastic) on a fabric backing.

Environmental Graphics of Wayzata, Minn., turns out contemporary designs, such as a panel that says "door" and is sized accordingly. They also make one that shows Andy Warhol with his Brillo box, an enormous head with a snaggle tooth, five hippie faces -- well, you get the scene.

Scandecor, a Swedish company, makes Photowalls -- scenes of the beach, mountains, lakes and Marilyn Monroe (a wallsized head). Its Photodoors are sized for doors with scenes of a Buckingham Palace Garden, a horse behind a stable door, all the Muppets inside a stage door and a telephone booth.

Sunworthy makes a number of trompe I'eil coverings such as "Bibliotheque" (library), a design of books presumably for people who don't have real ones. Another Sunworthy is "Family Album," pictures of people from the '20s, perhaps for people who don't have real ancestors.

Naturescapes Inc. of Newport, R.I., offers you the world on your wall -- Mount Rainier, Ticonderoga Woods, Appalachian Falls, all photographs blown up to wall size. The effect is quite dramatic.

Some very pleasant contemporary large-scale geometric metallic panels are designed by David Winfield Wilson of San Francisco.

"Grand-scale design gives the eye a sense of actually looking past the pattern, an illusion of more space," Wilson said. "In small quarters, large scale can give a grand sweep, a verve to otherwise characterless areas. In many cases, it is the only decoration a small room needs."

Hand-painted papers from China were first imported into Europe in great quantities in the 17th century. Most of them were the same scenes we think of today. Besides the birds, butterflies and flowering shrubs, there were scenes from the Chinese countryside and ceremonies.

One famous design is called "The Reluctant Falcon" (one person who owned it always thought of it as the reluctant buzzard), showing a hunting party in the Chinese mountains trying to persuade the falcon, used for hunting, to come back to his master's arm. Lantern processions were another favorite subject.

In the late 16th century, England and France began to hang hand-painted illuminated papers, but they were not in general use until the 18th century when papers matching painted and printed cotton and linen textiles became popular in France.

Wallpaper became cheaper and more available when a new method of block printing was developed in France around 1750. Wallpaper was printed in colors, a different block for each color, but still far cheaper than hand-painted papers. Even important artists such as Boucher were copied by the wallpaper makers. Sometimes the wallpaper imitated woodcarving or moulding, such as overdoor and overmantel paneling.

Scenic wallpapers came in style near the end of the 18th century. Two of the better-known scenic papers by A.L. Diament & Co. of Philadelphia were installed in the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy. The White House had originally used much wallpaper, in the early 19th-century American fashion. "Scenic America" is in the Diplomatic Reception Room. It was first printed in 1834 by Jean Zuber et Cie in Rixheim, Alsace. The paper is based on 1820s engravings of European ideas of American landscapes -- not all of them accurate. "La Guerre D'Independance" ("The War of Independence"), the same landscapes but with Revolutionary events added, was in the President's Dining Room, but it was removed by Betty Ford, who thought the violent subject not appropriate for lunch. In the Blue Room, since the 1972 redecoration, hangs an American silkscreen reproduction of an 1800 French Directoire paper, a classical frieze around the top and bottom.

In the United States, wallpaper -- often called paper hangings -- was first manufactured by John Hickey in 1756 and John Rugar in 1765, according to a monogram by Sheila W. Martin. Plunket Fleeson of Philadelphia, an upholsterer who began in October 1769, is often mistakenly credited with being the first, Martin says.

Albert Diament established his Philadelphia firm in 1885. Today the company claims to be the oldest with the same family name, ownership and management. Diament says it was the first to sell Japanese grass cloth and imitation leathers around the turn of the century.

In 1786 in the Pennsylvania Packet, an advertisement by Joseph Dickinson (quoted by Martin) read, "Flies and smoke operate to soil paper in common rooms if the grounds are too delicate; to prevent which I have... grounds that fly marks will not be perceptible upon. Also dark grounds, which the smoke will not considerably affect in the course of 20 years -- at such low prices will eventually be found cheaper than whitewash." CAPTION: Picture 1, 2, and 3, Upper left: Shaw's flowery-print wallpaper and curtains. Below: Wallpaper mural in White House's Diplomatic Reception Room, left, and the Cladouhos' Chinese-design wallpaper (detail upper right).; Picture 4, Diplomatic Reception Room picture, Copyright (c) , the White House Historical Society, photo by the National Georgraphic Society; others by James Thresher -- The Washington Post Picture 5, Interior designer Suzanne Shaw in her studio. By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post Picture 6, The walls of the Blue Room are covered with a reproduction of an 1800 French wallpaper, a classical frieze decorates the top and bottom. Copyright (c) , The White House Historical Society, photo by the National Geographic Society