FIRST IT WAS "High Tech" and then "Country Style," now Clarkson Potter Inc. Publishers has "Found Objects."

In January, when the pocketbook, if not the cupboard, is bare, it seems too good to be true to be told that you can decorate your house free. And it is. Joseph Ruggerio, who's responsible for the new "Style and Source" book, doesn't really mean you don't need exquisite and expensive furniture and accessories. As marketing director for Ethan Allan (though he doesn't reveal that when out promoting the book), Ruggerio would be the first to say no one should give up buying and go to scavaging.

"I like to see natural things: leaves, shells, pebbles, stones and throwaways: Styrofoam packing material, postcards, clippings, even stencils and Polaroid-film cases used for decoration. But I like them set against beautiful architecture and magnificent furniture," Ruggerio said. "The contrast is part of the effect.

"I suppose I became interested in found objects because my father was a fisherman. He used to pick up bits of rope and I'd make assemblages from them. As a boy I sold one for $95. It gives you a sense of creativity, you are asking people to look inside you."

Ruggerio is currently working on a fabric collection made of patterns from found objects, including beer fliptops.

"This idea is not a joke, it's serious business," Ruggerio protested. "Natural objects retrain the eye. The English have always been much more relaxed than we are about decoration."

Ruggerio is certainly not the first to think that what people throw out is sometimes better than what they keep.

The cult of the found object, the Flotsam and Jetsam School of Decorating, is almost universal among struggling young architects. The cable spool table is as much of a cliche in poor designers' apartments as the Mies van der Rohe coffee table is in rich ones'.

Some of these designs have even gone on to be made and sold commercially: the lamp made from flexible hose for instance, and the sawhorse and door table (which spawned The Door Stores).

It's a truism that rich folk are more penny-pinching than poor ones -- how else did they become rich? Everybody likes a bargain. But the rich designers in Ruggerio's book use everyday objects transformed for a specific design reason.

The juxtaposition of smooth and rough, simple and sophisticated, grotesque and exquisite, beautiful and ugly has long been a way to heighten a visual experience. In the 17th century, women wore "beauty marks," artifical moles, to call attention to their eyes or mouth. The grotesqueries of Gothic cathedrals were there to intensify the beauty of the structure.

Thomas Jefferson decorated his front hall at Monticello with natural objects, not so much found as discovered: animal heads, skeletons and fossils. The Wunderkammer, the collector's cabinet of the Renaissance, held ostrich eggs, peacock feathers and rocks.

It's only been in this century that we have been so tidy with our lives, relegating our family photographs to leather scrapbooks, or bringing out our china and silver only when necessary for service.

Japanese architecture and decoration began to be a major influence at the turn of the last century. The spare style that advocated bringing out only a few objects at once swept Europe at a time when eclecticism, or better yet clutterism, was the rule of the day.

The Japanese theory of "less is more" captured the design community. Austerity in architecture and decorating was reinforced by two world wars and a major depression. Now the pendulum threatens to swing the other way. Pattern, clutter, mixtures of styles and periods, shapes and forms threaten the clean lined classic modernity.

Susanne Slesin, who co-authored "High Tech," a book advocating using industrial design for a spare, modern decorating, almost recents in her introduction to Ruggerio's book.

(By the way, the book seems to be one of those new affairs where the person listed as "By" didn't actually write it. The text is credited to Carol Cooper Garey, the foreward is by Mario Buatta, the designer, and J. Barry O'Rourke is the photographer.)

Slesin points out that artists have been finding objects and transforming them into art since the early part of the century. Cubists made paper collages. Marcel Duchamp signed a ceramic urinal and entered it in an exhibition. Rauschenberg put a tire around a stuffed goat and called it art. Louise Nevelson assembles and paints scraps of wood for sculpture. Slesin suggests that the Post-Modernist architects' use of architectural remnants and details might be considered in the same category.

Here are a few of the ideas from the book:

Interior designer John Dickinson, whose home, a converted firehouse, might be considered a found object itself, uses as sculpture papier mache heads from a department store trash pile.Fashion designer Ralph Lauren uses rocks as tables. Designer Ron Mann uses beach glass, tiny pieces worn smooth by the water, spread out on a dining table as a centerpiece. (Not in the book, but in the Carter White House, then social secretary Gretchen Poston once used sand and shells in the same way for a state dinner.)

Albert Hadley, the interior designer, covered a wall with cork to make a scrapbook of postcards, clippings, quotations and other fragments. The late actor Jack Albertson collected hats from his roles and displayed them on a wall. Brooke Astor, for her wall, has framed a fragment from a packing crate that held Chinese sod for the garden court she gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clothes and furniture designer Angelo Donghia made a lampshade from a parasol for his Key West house.

Furniture designers Sarina and John Mascheroni, who have been hunting out objects for years, made an end table of a paint can, turned a muffin tin into a candleholder, assembled a dining table using a wood door (found in the barn) and two sawhorses, and keep their magazines in a claim basket, when they're not claming.

Robert Patino and Vincente Wolf, interior decorators, made a coffee table from moving skids for Elsa Peretti, the jewelry designer. Furniture designer John Saladino mounts fishing poles as decorative sculpture when they're not catching fish.

Another furniture designer, Richard Mauro, went the whole way when he made a chair from 500 paperbacks caught in cargo netting, as well as an ottoman of newspapers and a chair of zippers sewn onto a vinyl sheet and stuffed.

Ruggerio practices what he preaches. He has a rock shaped like Nantucket on his book shelves. In a living room with an elegant gold framed ancestor portrait (wife's family) he uses as a cocktail table two stacked tires topped with glass. On his deck, driftwood and the wheelborrow are considered sculpture. He planted logs, burrowed out by nature, with bonsai trees. An old garage door, rescued from a neighbor's trash, became a table when he nailed it to four split logs. The family sits on crates around it.

Other thoughts from Ruggerio: tin can labels as kitchen decoration, tea crates for cocktail tables, a seed bag as a wall hanging, Spanish moss around plastic flower pots for a centerpiece, an olive oil can lamp base, bench fence framing a sandcasting, a clothes drying rack painted red and topped with glass for a table, a garbage can (a new metal one) and trunks as tables, a wooden flower flat or Styrofoam packing material for a buffet tray, a forks-and-spoons candle sconce, a wine crate cutting board, rocks for ratio seating.

So, you see, if you keep your pencils in a mustard jar, plant your flowers in chimney tiles, use foot lockers and filing cabinets as tables, you're in good company.

A word of caution: A few found objects can be a treasure, too many a disaster. Remember when looking at Ruggerio's book, a good color photographer can make any mess look good. Franz Bader, for instance, in Washington, has widely exhibited beautiful color photographs that turn mud patterns, rocks and lichens into abstract art. The camera focuses on the beautiful and excludes the messy surroundings. That's the trick to use in decorating. Use your found objects, but don't lose good design.