Design for Nonliving

David's in oil and gas. Clair's an actress at the Alley. Their daughter, Rebecca, is at MIT, but returns frequently to use her whiz-bang remote-control commode -- who wouldn't?

If their house has that unlived-in look, it's because nobody lives there. David, Clair and Rebecca are the fictitious inhabitants of the IdeaHouse. Located on the eighth floor of the Decorative Center Houston, the high-end virtual home is the brainchild of L.A.'s Joseph Ruggiero, creator of similar product-placement emporiums in Seattle, San Francisco and Dallas.

Houston's is modeled on a French chateau; Siri Roark, the DCH rep who's giving me a tour, terms it "Euro-Texan." The 3,500-square-foot show house is choked with so-called "fine art," fake busts and mock fireplaces, objects from conflicting regions and epochs. Many people would consider the effect(s) elegant, opulent. I'm turning a claustrophobic green and clashing with a Waverly wall covering.

"What is good design? Balance, scale, appropriateness, color application," says Judy Foster of the American Society of Interior Designers, who's joined our tour. We're standing in the master bedroom, and I'm pondering the propriety of a color scheme that combines butter cream and burgundy; it's the visual equivalent of a nail scratching a blackboard.

On the upside, Ruggiero's a marvel with ground surfaces and bathrooms. The floor in the dining room/library is bamboo with the look and feel of burnished blond wood -- a nice environmental touch, given that the fast-growing plant is a vexatious weed to anyone but a panda. The matlike covering in the living room is made of woven paper. Unlike the rest of the house, the bathrooms are rich in air and space, mixing old-world charm (you could water sunflowers with Kallista's Niagara Waterfall Shower Spout) and New World Order chic (the aforementioned photoelectric toilet/bidet by TOTO of Japan).

But the best space in the house isn't really in the house. Ruggiero's "secret garden," the terrace, offers relief from the clutter and a soft touch of tech: Banks of iris lights blanket the area in a warm veil of ultramarine. An ominous GE Monogram Outdoor Cooking Center glows silver-blue in a corner, and I can almost smell the foie gras fajitas David's not searing up for Clair and Rebecca, who aren't lounging about in their Pompeii, Inc. cast-aluminum chairs, not reading W and Better Homes and Gardens.

-- Clay McNear

The IdeaHouse: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, through February. 5120 Woodway. Info: 961-9292. $5 (proceeds: the Ronald McDonald House and the Connection).