Twenty years ago Michael Taylor, a San Francisco interior designer, brought towering cactus plants into living rooms and featured them as nature's own sculpture. He did the same with rugged rocks. He stripped windows of their coverings and had floors laid with stone to underpin what was to become known as the ''California natural style.''
By the addition of glass tops, he converted tree stumps from the beach and roots washed and bleached by the sea into coffee and dining tables. At first, the use of these natural elements was in response to young clients who had little money but yearned for a fresh decorating approach. This natural look quickly attracted people with money, too, and flowered into a national trend.
He found excitement in putting big, bold, overscaled pieces of furniture into small- or average-sized rooms and established a look that was strong, simple, light, and airy.
His palette has always been mainly neutral, mostly beiges and whites. ''Michael Taylor white'' is a warm, linen white with beige tones that, he says, is flattering to guests, plants, and paintings.
By using natural objects - stone, natural woods, minerals, wicker, plants, and fresh flowers - all drawn from the California environment, this trendsetting interior designer defined an ever-evolving and highly influential Western look that has been copied all over the world.
More than 40 cover stories in shelter and design magazines such as House & Garden and Architectural Digest have, since 1957, given circulation to each new turn and nuance of his work. ''By the time any one look would get featured and copied by others,'' he commented recently, ''I would have moved on to something else, for my work has varied a lot over the years.''
At the recent annual conference of the American Society of Interior Designers , the organization named Mr. Taylor the Designer of Distinction for 1984. This award, designated by his peers, recognizes Mr. Taylor's significant contribution over the past 30 years to the field of American interior design.
Mr. Taylor maintains his office-studio within his home, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean at Seacliff. From there he travels to design jobs in many countries.
Diana Vreeland, then editor of Vogue, once called Michael Taylor the Jimmy Dean of the decorating world, a rebel with a cause. ''She got a kick out of the fact that I was doing everything against the accepted decorating rules,'' he recalls. ''Everything that I did was sort of the opposite of what was currently being taught.''
Rudolph Schaeffer, with whom he studied interior design for a time and who, he says, ''taught me the beauty of Chinese porcelains,'' also noted that his rebel student had great talent. He helped forward his career by giving him helpful introductions to leading designers in the Bay Area. Archibald Taylor and Frances Mihailoff were two well-known San Francisco designers with whom he worked before opening his own business.
The tall, boyish-looking designer says he was also influenced by two good friends, the fashion designer Coco Chanel and the weaver/designer Dorothy Liebes.
As a child in Santa Rosa, Calif., he says, it was his grandmother who had the most lasting influence on him. ''She would take me to see gardens and on field trips along the coastline. She introduced me to all the beautiful forms of nature. Her antiques taught me the importance of possessions that really mean something, and her house was always filled with huge bouquets of flowers. Her conversation with me was full of exclamation points: 'Just look at this flower! Isn't this a marvelous rock! See what I just found on the beach!' I learned to look with her eyes and her appreciation.''
Everett Brown, a fellow of the American Society of Interior Designers and himself a former Designer of Distinction, remarks about Mr. Taylor, ''I have watched him from his earliest years, and he has always been way out in front, watched and copied. He has always realized the importance of nature in interior decoration and had his finger on the life-style pulse. His work has style, quality, and imagination.''
Michael Taylor himself sums up many salient aspects of his work this way:
''An overscaled approach to furniture and accessories eliminates small pieces and clutter from decoration.
''You have to get up close for conversation. So I insist that people be able to pool themselves into conversational groupings that are comfortable, without having to move the furniture around.
''I like card tables, pianos, game tables, and lots of books - all those things which add livability to a room and infer leisure. I always feel, too, that a room is worthless if it doesn't work properly and isn't comfortable. Comfort is very important to me.
''I can't imagine a room without growing plants. Even my bedroom is filled with orchids.
''Europeans love the look of stripped and bleached wood floors, fewer but bigger pieces of furniture, and worlds of plants and flowers. They just adapt it in their own way, mixing it with traditional gold and gilt and fine antiques.
''I live with beautiful things from all over the world. I often carry them home on my lap in airplanes. I move them about and rearrange them so I can study them at all different angles. Later, I may sell some so I can acquire other objects.''
Some of his own pieces, produced under the title Michael Taylor Designs, are available at specified design showrooms.
The designer says he is currently moving in two different directions. ''My contemporary work is quite bold and strong. I am using wood, granites that are chiseled or sandblasted or polished, and handwoven leathers. I use only natural fibers, cottons, linens, and silks, and I often have them handwoven to my own specifications.''
His second direction is to attempt to bring new life and excitement to period rooms. ''I am doing this with new materials, color, new fabrics, and modern lighting effects. I am also looking for antiques that are not overpriced, such as Directoire and Gothic. And just as, years ago, I saw the beauty in farm implements and used them in interior design, I am today attracted by the rustic porch furniture that was once made by farmers and mountain people.''