Taste in The Third Millenium. Will designers:

* "Dig into the shallow grab bag of historical references"?

* "Find new meaning in objects to provide psychological comfort"?

* Or settle for "canned symbols"?

Yesterday at the new Washington Design Center, four tastemakers fought the fight of cave or bower, plain or fancy.

Lee Hall, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and moderator of the seminar, asked, "Sass or Brass? Style or Substance? What will give form and direction to the future?"

"In the last five years, design has changed a great deal," said interior designer John Saladino, who espouses a historical approach. "The new mannerism is a revolt against white boxes and the machine ethic."

Massimo Vignelli, designer of everything from cups to interiors, retorted: "People say that the dictum 'less is more' has become 'less is a bore.' But already Post-Modernism, with its historical borrowings, is a fading fad. Expect a backlash to overdecoration and a return to simplicity."

"We're already seeing a new interest in the modern school with an enriched view," said Louis Oliver Gropp, editor in chief of the revitalized House & Garden magazine, which shows a spectrum of dramatic designs.

"Pluralism is best," he said. "We show all possibilities: a cha teau in France--a tenement in San Francisco. The best are those that arouse violent reactions--on both sides.

"There's been an acceleration in ideas. A style which once would have held sway for a hundred years, now is over in twenty."

Mark Hampton, designer of comfortable but elegant interiors, added: "People have so much mobility today. They redecorate every time they move, when they should refine."

Saladino railed against Modernists: "Ten years ago, bathing in white paint was the equivalent of bathing in the Ganges. People think that functional means washable. We've showered in vinyl--and it's all dirty."

Hampton and Saladino chorused, "I hate functionalism."

"Clients come to you," Saladino said, "with their little box of repressed dreams."

"They say they must have a dining room because they give little dinner parties, when they never do," said Hampton.

"A woman with several children," said Saladino, "said she wanted a practical house. So I did a living room with a rug you could be sick on. When she looked at it, she said she'd really wanted all white."

Hall raised the question: "What is the role of historical focus?"

Hampton replied, "The best designers and clients are scholarly. You can't understand Frank Lloyd Wright unless you know the Viennese Secession."

Saladino said, "We reinterpret Pompeii. Only materials change. Columns are precast concrete now instad of stacked stone, but the form is the same."

"Are we going to mire down in nostalgia?" questioned Gropp.

"You mean the embalmers look," said Vignelli.

"People are disgusted by things wearing out on their way home," Hampton said. "Permanence is reassuring."

"The time has passed," said Saladino, "when every room was a different historical style: Chippendale dining room, Old English library, Louis XIV living room."

"Canned symbols," said Hall.

"Look at the meaning of symbols," Vignelli said. "Far better than taking answers from a catalogue."

All agreed the new technology affects design.

"Electronic cabinet systems have become the focus of the room," Gropp said.

"One-third of the budget today can go into technology," complained Saladino. "The absurdity of gold-plated stereo sets! It's like my grandfather's Gothic radio."

For the future, Saladino and Hampton said they expect a new elitism. "It's like in 'Blade Runner,' where a small percentage will have antiques on a high top floor," Saladino said.

Gropp disagreed. "The creativity we see today is just the tip of the iceberg. We'll see wonderful alternatives."

Vignelli nodded. "In the next 200 or 300 years, as more people are educated, the mass of people will enjoy good design."

Hall, looking around at the yellow-and-white striped tent outside the Design Center where the seminar was held, said: "I think we've had great testaments to humanism, appropriate to a tent meeting. Perhaps the millenium will bring a new period of humanism."

"The individual is all," said Hampton.