IT ALL STARTED WITH A FEELING FOR THE ESTHETIC

movement, an empty cinder-block studio and a fireplace. Well, not an entire fireplace. Just a beat-up mantel picked up in an antique shop for trompe l'oeil artist Dana Westring's farm in the Virginia countryside. Next came some tinkering by Westring: columns built to support the mantel, blue-painted wood tiles for the frieze and a sunflower motif for the surround.

Then came some added design input from decorator Jane Cafritz, an idea for faux tooled-leather "walls" complete with brass tacks, English arts and crafts furniture and decorative accessories, and a desire to concentrate on the many elements associated with the esthetic movement.

It's a fantasy, all right, but one with its feet planted firmly in the late 19th century -- 1860 through the late 1880s to be precise. In essence, the esthetic movement, espoused by such artists and designers as William Morris, James McNeill Whistler and Charles Eastlake, was a reaction to the mass production, overdesign and superfluous ornament of the High Victorian period. Confined for the most part to the British Isles and the United States, it stressed the ideas of appropriate ornament and utilitarian objects with inherent beauty.

"I like the exotic, romantic nature of the esthetic movement," says Westring. "As a painter, it allows me to indulge in various treatments, to let the whole background evolve."

Cafritz provided many of the historical underpinnings, using objects from her collection of 19th-century Wedgwood and borrowing props and furniture to fill in the space created by Westring.

In Westring and Cafritz's finished "room," classic details from the esthetic movement abound: the sunflower motif; the abundance of hand-painted detail; the wallpaper-like lotus frieze; the use of various "revivals," including Egyptian, Greek and oriental inspirations, and a general feeling of lush artistic detail.

"This is a little more eclectic than a pure historical room," says Westring. "But I think it has a richness and complexity about it that looks American. It has a muscular nature about it that is more American than the soft-flowered chintzes we've all become so familiar with."