NEW YORK -- Mario Buatta has a vision. One day not too far off, people out there in the heartland (i.e., points west of the Hudson or north of 95th Street) will put together their own overstuffed versions of his English country decor, using the growing array of officially licensed Mario Buatta products. Think of it. Windows in St. Louis festooned with enough swags and jabots and cascades of fabric to make up several ball gowns, all of it Mario Buatta prints with names like "Hillary" and "Melanie." Sitting rooms in Boise planned around the Mario Buatta serpentine-back sofa in madly flowered glazed cotton. Elaborately romantic bedrooms in Schenectady, created with Mario Buatta linens. Possibly to be joined by carpets and candlesticks and even china table settings, all reflecting his taste for cabbage roses and King Charles spaniels and other talismans of old money. Of course, some people can already achieve the same drowning-in-swatches effect by hiring Buatta himself to decorate their Park Avenue duplexes and Southampton cottages. Barbara Walters, for instance, whose new apartment overlooking Central Park ("14 rooms," Buatta says. "Or is it 15?") is preoccupying him at the moment. Or Malcolm Forbes or Charlotte Ford or various Hearsts and Woolworths. The problem, Buatta acknowledges, is that nowadays "the average little three-bedroom apartment in town costs well over a million" to furnish and decorate, "depending on how fancy the antiques are. I mean, a pair of chairs can be $30,000 or they can be $60,000." Quite. No decorator wants to relinquish his big-name and big-money clients, his crack at high-prestige assignments like the restoration of Washington's Blair House (a 3 1/2-year, $15 million project Buatta shared with Mark Hampton), or his residence in the society columns. But clearly there is a limit. Only so many of those who thirst for glazed walls are multimillionaires, and for only so many multimillionaires can Buatta personally determine whether those walls ought to be spinach, pale shrimp or beach plum. But licensing is a way for interior decorators, like fashion designers before them, to ensnare us all, the classes and the masses. "My pension plan," Buatta calls it, cheerfully. Other celebrity decorators have had the same vision, of course. Jay Spectre's contemporary furniture line has been selling briskly at Bloomingdale's; Mark Hampton's more traditional collection had its debut a year ago. But Buatta has certain advantages in this sweepstakes. He has a flair for self-promotion. ("Everybody's Mario's pal, particularly if you have a byline or a magazine," says the editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest.) As a result, he has broad name recognition ("Whom else do we hear so much about?" says the executive editor of House Beautiful). And he can claim the swellest sobriquet, first bestowed by a local television reporter, in interior design. Mark Hampton is plain old Mark Hampton. Dorothy Parish is Sister Parish. But Mario Buatta is the Prince of Chintz. "We're leaving you!" the Prince carols to his assistant Beth Martell, tucking bits of fabric and his "scheme boards" (a room's floor plan on the back, swatches and paint samples on the front) into a shopping bag. He slides into his blazer pockets the folded yellow legal sheets on which he jots all notes, appointments and phone numbers until they blur into an indecipherable inky jumble. Other top New York designers command sizable staffs in posh surroundings; the Prince has a single assistant, an Upper East Side office so jammed with decorating detritus that it can be entered only sideways, and a hole in the sole of one tasseled loafer. He constantly grouses about his weight, declaring that he's "on the seafood diet -- I see food and I eat it." There is about Buatta the same kind of slightly run-down, hodgepodge elegance that characterizes the English country homes he simulates. It's only a few blocks to the Fifth Avenue flat of Walters and her TV tycoon husband Merv Adelson, where the paint crew awaits instructions on the proper color for the library's shelves. When a house is being Buattified, as the Prince puts it, paint doesn't mean latex semigloss. It means a thin coat of plaster and then a layer of canvas, followed by five or so primer and finish coats, plus stippling or brushing, then glazing, to achieve the proper burnished sheen. Small wonder that painting a nonenormous dining room can cost $10,000. But there are so many antique shops en route. "I was born to shop," Buatta confides, happily prowling the side streets. "Luckily, I'm spending other people's money." A Buattified room is supposed to feature all sorts of artful clutter, old silver objets, Delft china, Scottish tobacco tins, that sort of thing. The English gentry, of course, amassed the stuff over a couple of hundred years. Buatta's clients are on a tighter schedule and what's more, many of them are too busy to collect their own collectibles. So he acquires things for them. "I've got one client who likes pigs; I've got another who loves frogs," he says, looking over the curios at Patricia Funt's little shop on 78th Street. "Ah, here's a little piggy!" It's a pig-shaped silver match striker, British, mid-19th century, $275. Buatta orders it wrapped; his client, who owns 200 porcine antiques already, will be so pleased. At Provence Antiques on 76th, Buatta pines as usual over a pair of painted English Regency fire screens. "I'm mad for these," he keens. Alas, the new owners of the von Bulow apartment have already reserved them. But he does find a little fireside chair -- a chauffeuse, it's called. "Hold this for me, will you?" he tells the proprietor. "It's wonderful for my client in California with a French house." The $7,500 chair has a cigarette burn in its velvet seat, necessitating total reupholstering, but no matter. "I love the back," Buatta says. "It has such character." Half an hour late, he arrives at Walters' rambling new apartment and picks his way among the drop cloths, inspecting the progress. He clucks because no one has remembered to marbleize the light switch in the dining room. In the library, where every surface has been rendered faux something, he rules on how deeply caramelized the shelves should be. "Too dark I think, John," he says as his glazer mixes and mottles. "I'd like to see a little more contrast ... Oooh, I like that better." Walters' red dressing room/office ("she looks great in red"), which gleams like a candied apple and will be carpeted in an ocelot pattern, gets the seal of approval. And the master bedroom is coming along. It will be "a very pale, pale, pale cantaloupe," Buatta says dreamily. "It sort of looks like lingerie, don't you think?" Even though the name and the rarefied clientele (one of whom picked up dining room furniture for $150,000) suggest that Mario Buatta just jetted in from Milan, he is the first to proclaim that he grew up on Staten Island, the son of a band leader and grandson of immigrants. His family's home was pointedly moderne, white-walled and white-carpeted. "I hate all that chrome and glass," he says now. "Very cold." Always drawn to the old and fusty -- his first antique, purchased when he was 11 for 50 cents a week, was an 18th-century Sheraton box that his father insisted be sprayed for vermin -- Buatta studied at Cooper Union and refined his tastes in London. Right through the minimalist era of open lofts and high-tech, he plugged away at his ruffly Old World interiors, in which less was less. Buatta did not like gray rubber flooring and industrial light fixtures. Buatta liked yards of fringe and tassels, gewgaws and pillows, paintings suspended by big bows, patterned carpets, flowered chintzes against striped damasks against silk plaids -- a style "that doesn't look like I bought it all last week," he says. "I don't think it's ever gone out of fashion or ever will." But it does have its slumps and its resurgences, one of the latter occurring early in this decade. Societal pulse takers may relate the renewed passion for old English to such currents as political conservatism, Reaganist chic or Baby Boomer cocooning. In any case, the Prince was well positioned for the revival. "He's had a great 10 years," says Peggy Kennedy, executive editor of House Beautiful, of Buatta. "Everybody wanted that look. A lot of people still want it, a lot of the right people." His client list has included Mets owner Nelson Doubleday, band leader Peter Duchin, fashion designer Cathy Hardwick and Billy Joel. He's redoing, in stages over 10 years, the Park Avenue duplex of Donald and Susan Newhouse, of the publishing Newhouses, and he'll shortly take on their new barn in New Jersey. Buatta didn't just catch the wave. Other designers do English country, some for longer than Buatta has, some as well, some more classically and perhaps, depending on whose opinion is sought, some better. But few others have worked as hard at being seen, having influence, building connections, becoming, in fact, ubiquitous. Buatta designed rooms for 17 charity show houses over 19 years, for example. Diantha Nype, who handles public relations for the Kips Bay Decorator Show House, Manhattan's oldest, recalls the first Kips Bay house in 1973. "How could I forget? The whole house caused a stir," she says. Buatta's "bower of flowers" sitting room featured his trademark lacquered walls in beach plum, his silk plaid curtains lined in yellow taffeta, his skirted tables. "People hadn't seen much lacquer at the time," Nype says. "Nobody'd ever seen pictures hung by bows in their lives." Buatta also forged an early connection with the Winter Antiques Show, which he has chaired for 14 years and which concludes today. At one time it was a smallish exhibit raising smallish amounts for an East Side charity; he's helped convert it to a major fundraiser and a highlight of the social season for the very set that can afford high-end decorators. It hasn't been an effortless association -- for much of the past year Buatta has been jousting with dealers, in court and in the press, over control of the coveted invitations to display -- but it has been a highly visible one. Visibility, in fact, ought to be Buatta's middle name. He's on the town a good five nights out of seven, surrounded by names out of Liz Smith's column and Truman Capote's fiction. "I wish I had time to be a couch potato," he complains; acquaintances can only roll their eyes. "Mario is the kind of person who will go to three parties in one night," says Peggy Kennedy. "He's always on." Increasingly, decorators are the social peers of the people who hire them. "It wasn't long ago that no one would give her decorator the time of day, or her hairdresser or her dress designer," says Joan Kron, editor-in-chief of the upscale magazine Avenue and a longtime pal of Buatta's. Today's star decorators and hair colorists "service the rich and they live the life of the rich themselves. They become part of that world ... and they are treated as artists. Or as delicious curiosities." Buatta, who's single, is particularly sought after. "It's the old extra-man syndrome," he says. "You're in demand because you're available at a moment's notice." He's also well-mannered -- constitutionally unable to let a woman walk on the outside of the sidewalk -- and possessed of a clownish sense of humor that occasionally drives him to call people pretending to be Robin Leach. So the invitations flow in. They don't hurt his business, either. A number of decorators are on the circuit: Mark Hampton and his wife Duane, Robert Denning, Vincent Fourcade. "Being part of the scene is how you meet prospective clients, how you keep up with your regulars," observes Aileen Mehle, a k a Suzy, the syndicated society columnist. "It's just buttering the bread." Another day, another stop at the Walters-Adelson manse, then onto John Rosselli Antiques. Buatta is selecting items to borrow for a "house" he's designing and House Beautiful is shooting for its May issue, to feature his line of fabrics and his furniture. He needs tchotchkes for the living room and bedroom, and he's cruising the aisles spotting hatboxes and bird cages and paisley throws. "Ahhh, isn't that fabulous?" he coos over a painted screen. "Can we borrow this creamware tureen? ... Look at those little bamboo lamps ... Do you have a fruit painting?" The final tally: one hour, 27 items, cost if purchased approximately $28,000. Buatta next taxis to the 21st Street workroom where "a little man" and his coworkers actually assemble the drapery confections that adorn Buattified homes. Buatta doesn't want the little man's name bandied about, since part of a decorator's value to his clients is his secret list of upholsterers and master pillowmakers. Muslin prototypes of the voluminous folds that will grace the Walters-Adelson bedroom -- in a rose-trellis fabric with tiny hand-painted wooden bells suspended here and there -- are hanging against a wall awaiting Buatta's blessing. "Not a lot of bells, is it?" the designer frowns. "You got plenty of bells in the dining room," the little man says. "Those are tassels," Buatta says, still unhappy. "I can't believe it; I thought we were doing lots of little bells." He used bells in the old Queen's Bedroom at Blair House. He's fond of bells. In the end, he instructs the little man to make the folds "a teensy bit shallower" and takes with him a manila envelope full of unpainted bells. Another little man will carefully apply stripes of turquoise and yellow and coral and paint the clappers gold and the rims red. Once upon a time, it was a prevalent fiction that well-to-do women saw to all these tasks themselves, maybe asking a decorator to "help out." Now, a name like Buatta's is a badge of status. "They come to you because you're a label," Buatta says. Having the proper decorator doesn't guarantee social entree, but it's an important part of the mix. "You have to have your house done if you want to get into the rat race, if you want to make your mark in the city, if you want to get on the {charitable and institutional} boards," explains Joan Kron of Avenue. "Because you need a place to entertain. And if you're new, people will look at your taste; your taste is a passport." Enter the society decorators, long a New York fixture, becoming more celebrated and, through the media and their own marketing projects, more influential. Mark Hampton's clients have included Este'e Lauder and Rupert Murdoch; when Ann and Gordon Getty came to town, they sought out Sister Parish of Parish-Hadley, which had worked for Brooke Astor and William Paley. "I don't particularly appeal to the nouveau riche type," Buatta says. "What I do is more playing down your money; they want to show it off." But the old-money look is precisely what attracts some people with new money (and everyone will know how wildly expensive everything is anyway). Sometimes it's hard to assess whether a decorator like Buatta or Hampton derives status from his celebrated clients or confers status upon them. "I think it works both ways," says Suzy. "It's probably a circular thing," Kron agrees. The problem, from Buatta's point of view, is that despite the ceaseless dinner parties and column mentions, he's not making all that much money. He adds a 25 percent fee to the cost of construction and painting, 25 percent to the discounted cost of furniture and antiques, 50 percent to upholstery and fabrics. Not enough. He hates talking about money. "Quoting prices is so embarrassing," Buatta says. Young clients especially aren't "educated" about the prices of things. "They always want to know how much it's going to cost; that's what's so frustrating ... You take them out shopping, they say, 'We've got $200,000 or $300,000 to spend' and a year later they've spent $700,000 and they're still shopping." Buatta's not poor -- his assets, if liquidated, would mark him a millionaire, and he could probably buy a considerable chunk of Wyoming merely by selling off his antique collection -- but he's not as rich as most of his hosts and dinner partners. Working on his own, he can only handle 10 major jobs at a time. "It's a voyeur's life," he says. "They think you're making a fortune -- cleaning up -- and you're not." Unless you're using your New York cachet to sell products in Anytown, U.S.A. If fashion types like Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren can do it -- and what do they know about drapes? -- why not the Prince of Chintz? In fact, over the last few years, "every catalogue that comes in the mail, you can buy the bows, the chintz, all the things I do. So who's the fool?" Buatta shrugs. "I should have done the licensing five years ago." The fabrics came first, 14 floral designs by Fabriyaz since 1985. Sales to date: $12 million. The next step in America's chintzification came last spring with the Mario Buatta collection of wall coverings for Sterling Prints. John Widdicomb Furniture will launch its Mario Buatta collection with an opening party at B. Altman's flagship New York store in March, complete with music and canape's and several hundred guests. Pieces range from an $800 fringed ottoman to a $12,000 breakfront, with most in the neighborhood of $2,000 to $4,000; Widdicomb expects to sell "several thousand" in the first six months and is already planning the Mario Buatta bedroom collection. Coming soon: linens from Revman Industries, where Buatta is headed this afternoon to approve designs for sheets and comforters that will hit stores this summer. In Revman's 35th floor conference room in Midtown, creative director Diane Piemonte and several associates are showing Buatta renderings of his prints. "Ooh, pretty," Buatta says of the first design, the usual riot of roses and shasta daisies and ribbons in apricot and mauve. "Oh, I love the lace, it's so pretty. I love the border. You like it?" "Love it," everyone choruses back. Questions arise. Ruffled shams or tailored? Piping or cording on the neck rolls? Should the lace print or the floral appear on the fitted bottom sheet? "In your opinion," Piemonte asks, "esthetically, as Mario Buatta, how do you like the bed better?" There are problems with the third print; Buatta finds every version of its grid of ribbons "too busy." Revman's designers will press on. "We're looking," Piemonte assures him, "for a plaid that's meaningful." What Buatta is looking for is an annuity -- decorators' royalties on licensed furniture, for example, vary from 3 to 8 percent. Sometimes Buatta sounds as if licensing his name is a public service, bringing chintz-and-Regency to the underprivileged who can't hire him but could buy "a little piece of me." Other times he is more forthright: "I don't feature working seven days a week -- days and nights -- for the rest of my life." Licensing is still largely uncharted territory for decorators, and others will be watching his ventures. "There's been sporadic efforts" at licensing, says Paige Rense, editor in chief of Architectural Digest. "I'm told it's really difficult and not necessarily the gold mine some designers may think it is." Still, Buatta's name and his florals could have a whole new life at Macy's and Woodies and Bloomingdale's. He's negotiating over a line of carpets from China, and the Franklin Mint mail order house is test-marketing Mario Buatta candlesticks. One day there might arise chintz shower curtains with matching fringed towels. And designer linoleum in pale, pale cantaloupe. And the Mario Buatta collection of paint-colors-with-edible-names, to coordinate with everything else. Among celebrity decorators, "no one has really gone out in a big way after the mass market," says the Prince of Chintz. Until now.