Virginians have been treated in recent weeks to a sadly revealing flap over plans for furnishing the new offices of state legislators.

It should surprise no one to learn that Henry Howell started it. Someone slipped him a copy of the purchasing specifications for the furniture and he quickly perceived it as just the sort of fillip needed in his third populist campaign for governor.

Nothing could serve better as a vehicle to ridicule extravagance in government than a bureaucratic directive to furnish assembly members with Hepplewhite chairs with fluted legs, Chippendale sofas and desks of flat cut, African mahogany.

The Howell rhetoric struck other Virginia politicians as a sure-fire appeal to common instincts in voters and there was a bipartisan rush to imitate it.

This small-minded prattle has been amplified in the press and no one has the courage to mount much or a counterattack. The hapless legislators who are members of the Interior Design Subcommittee that ordered the furnishings have lamely pleaded for critics to put the whole thing in perspective.

The perspective they have in mind is the $17 million total cost of the legislative office building - a renovated commercial structure. In that perspective, the $400,000 furniture cost is minor.

The perspective they should have in mind is the legacy of culturally barren architecture and furnishings the state government is perpetuating in its public buildings. In that perspective, the timid and conventional plan of the Interior Design Subcommittee to "do" the new office building in 18th century reproductions is a bold stroke for civilization in Virginia.

There are scholars who interpret history through furniture and architecture. Virginians should pray to be overlooked by them, at least insofar as their public buildings are concerned. In Richmond and elsewhere, the state's buildings reflect the worst results of competitive bidding, convict labor and just plain stinginess.

The present office building for the 140 Assembly members is a lovely example. It is a made-over hotel furnished with prison-made desks and chairs. Significantly, the most useful feature of a modern hotel, private baths, were rendered useless by the state, which ripped out toilets and cut off water to the tub. The Assembly leadership feared that legislators would take to sleeping in their offices.

The only feeling that the present office building evokes is a desire to get out, which is what the Assembly is now doing. Its decision to renovate an office building, abandoned by an insurance company in its flight to the suburbs, rather than build a new one probably was a prudent one. It also has the virtue of saving us from another sterile structure posing as government architecture.

The state has been a mighty success in its avoidance of monumental architecture. The last such structure it financed was the 18th century center section of the state Capitol, a copy of a Roman temple. Other than a few period court houses and college buildings, it is the only state government structure in Virginia you would urge a friend to visit.

What should concern Henry Howell and his Republican and Democratic imitators is the fact that the Virginia government in the construction and furnishing of public buildings has long since ceased to be representative of the people.

Everywhere you look in Virginia, there are impressive private efforts to restore and elegantly furnish culturally significant residential and commercial districts. Less often, but to some extent, these restorations are accompanied by imaginative new buildings.

Old Town in Alexandria, the Fan, Church Hill and Shockoe Slip in Richmond and the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk are examples.

The state is conspicuously absent as a participant in this little renaissance.

If the Interior Design Subcommittee has set out to reflect the cultural spirit of Virginians, then gratitude should stifle the temptation to smirk at is predictable choice of a credo: Chippendale and Hepplewhite for all. After all, Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite were masters of two schools of English furniture design in a period that coincided with the flowering of Virginia's political golden age.

Perhaps from this small beginning, the Assembly can move toward a new policy for public buildings that will encourage design reflecting the physical beauty and cultural diversity of a state that played a singular role in the development of English-speaking America.

It is an eclectic culture and the buildings the Assembly commissions and furnishes should reflect eclecticism, not skepticism.

Forge ahead, Interior Design Subcommittee. The constitution gives us regular opportunities to replace your critics with officials worthy of elegant surroundings.