WHILE PLANNING HIS FANTASY, A "SECRET GARDEN" FOR Madame de Stae l, interior designer Antony Childs detailed his admiration for this 18th-century writer's political salons and influence on literature. But with only two chairs pulled up to the table, it is clear that Childs is really celebrating the private woman, whose disappointing marriage led to passionate liaisons with several writers of her day.

Tucked away in the linden-dotted garden of Meridian House, off 16th Street in Northwest Washington, Childs' outdoor scene is furnished in 18th-century style. "There was very little garden furniture then," says the designer, who created the scene with Tom Sims of the T. Hunkins decorative-accessories shop. Instead, Childs explains, in a household of Madame de Stae l's status and means, servants would carry bulky upholstered pieces, even sofas, outside for summer meals and parties, and formal upholstery fabrics would be covered in simple cotton. Dining rooms and dining tables were only starting to evolve in the late 18th century, so the French would throw a cloth on a formal center table ("We love those old bare wood tables, but they would always use a tablecloth," says Childs), draw up side chairs from around the room and, voila`, they were ready for dinner, in the middle of the salon -- or out in the garden.

For Madame de Stae l's twin interests, Childs added props to the scene -- books for her love of letters and a caged dove for her interest in love.