CHARLESTON, the refined Southeastern port that began as one of America's most aristocratic colonies, still retains its fondness for sumptuous, refined surroundings. Restored town houses and stately mansions with tiered verandas line its narrow, palm-studded streets. In both architecture and home decorating , the melding of the new and the old is almost imperceptible.
The Charlestonian taste for tradition and gracious interiors prevailed recently in the Seventh Annual Designer Showcase sponsored by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra League.
The showcase was held in the city's first high school - a handsome, recently renovated neoclassical building that had stood empty for more than 100 years. The peach-colored, columned facade was restored to its original appearance and the interior was converted into four residential apartments that will eventually be sold as condominiums. Twenty-five Charleston-area interior designers and decorators were each assigned a room in one of the four apartments.
Many of the rooms were studies in well-balanced arrangement, and they featured fine furniture in Chippendale and Queen Anne styles found in many of Charleston's historic homes.
''Charleston is basically very, very traditional,'' says Wayne Griffin, interior designer and coordinator for the showhouse.
The small upstairs sitting room designed by Mr. Griffin featured a subtle mix of textures, luxurious fabrics, and eclectic furnishings. A deep red fabric by Givenchy covered the walls to provide a warm backdrop for a jewel-toned paisley couch and curtains. An inviting writing area was created by a black lacquered Regency-style armchair and a mahogany Chippendale desk. Abundant prints, books, and flowers added finishing touches to the elegant yet comfortable room.
Many of the decorators drew inspiration from the Far East in furniture, wallpaper, rugs, and accessories. The most striking example was a guest bedroom by Elizabeth de Rosset Prioleau of Resort Designs Inc. on Kiawah Island, S.C. It featured a highly carved Chinese wedding bed. Black laquered chests served as bedside tables, and original Chinese hand-painted wall panels and other art objects adorned the walls.
The Oriental theme was also reflected in a dining room by Carol Jackson of Mount Pleasant, S.C. A dramatic chinoiserie paper with pale pink poppies on a dark brown background covered the walls, and matching balloon shades graced French doors opening onto a balcony. The focal point for this light-filled room was a glass-topped Chippendale-based table teamed with celadon lacquered chairs and set on a Chinese border rug.
In a nod to local tradition, two nostalgic master bedrooms featured the Charleston ''rice bed'' - a high four-poster, Sheraton-style bed with rice sheaves carved into the bedposts. The bed was originally designed to commemorate the crop that brought wealth to Charleston.
One of the bedrooms, designed by Carol McGill of Isle of Palms, S.C., evoked an aura of serene sophistication with deep blue-green walls, French bed linens in rose and white, and dark polished furniture. A Queen Anne highboy and a Jasper writing desk balanced the imposing bed, while an Italian brass tea cart and simple rattan chair and ottoman added lightness and grace to the setting.
Designed by Ina Hoover of Charleston, the second master bedroom featuring the rice bed harked back to the Victorian era with a sofa covered in a pink and green English chintz, fruit prints hung vertically on a ribbon backing, and ruffled valances over lace curtains. A hand-painted, striated wall covering echoed the pink tones of the chintz.
A unique addition to the show house was a spare, restrained dining room inspired by the classic revival style of the building itself. Karen Prewitt of Quattro Canti Interiors in Charleston used Egyptian and Greek elements, including a table with a dolphin base, Klismos-style chairs, and Pompeii prints of ancient artifacts. The walls were hand-painted in light gray and ocher to simulate marble, a process popular in Charleston in the mid-1800s.
In a break from tradition, a ''media room'' in cool jade tones punctuated with black accent pieces created a soothing retreat for a variety of activities. The design, by Shirley Carter, accommodated personal office space with computer equipment, as well as a television, stereo, and video cassete recorder. The use of uplighting and low, comfortable seating helped retain a relaxing atmosphere.
A well-executed living and dining area by Barbara Steadman of Charleston was another contemporary contribution to the show house. Strong contrast, bold patterns, and sculptured fabric window treatments, combined with traditional furniture, offered a modern design answer for clients with a penchant for the past.