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NEW MECCAS OF DESIGN. Large and small cities play host to sophisticated design emporiums

Walking through the Boston Design Center -- or any of the spectacular new centers springing up around the country -- can be a journey into multifarious realms of furnishings, fixtures, and architectural surprises. Design centers serve as a combination resource center and insider's shopping mall for interior designers and architects. They provide showroom space to manufacturers of furniture, fabrics, carpets, accessories, and other furnishings and fixtures.

Although their exclusivity sometimes gives the centers a slight air of mystery, increasing numbers of people are finding it possible to work with interior designers and to gain entry to this glittering array of goods and special services.

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The most mammoth design center project of all is the $117 million International Design Center in New York, which occupies four buildings in Long Island City, just over the 59th Street Bridge. Besides lower rents, it offers a landscaped mall with restaurants, shops, and service stores, and exhibition space for shows, lectures, and seminars.

Among those already in operation, the recently opened $30 million Boston Design Center, developed in part by Trammell Crow's Dallas Market Center, is a perfect example of new genre.

Housed in a splendidly converted old Army base warehouse in what is now part of Boston's Marine Industrial Park, its aesthetic mix suits a regional taste and market, but is also national and international in scope. Though generally traditional in its offerings, the new center also reflects the increasing interest in the contemporary and even avant-garde modern furnishings represented here. The Boston center is also proving that an impressive architectural setting does make a definite statement.

The fact that such centers are coming into being says something about how important design has become -- that it has blossomed into something totally apart from architecture.

These centers, which have been proliferating across the country, are courting a consuming public whose taste level and spending capacity has been rapidly escalating. The theory is that this segment of the population is not only reading a lot of upscale home magazines, but is now looking for upscale furnishings, purchased with the professional help of an interior designer or architect.

Design centers aim to accommodate this public in a selective way.

They generally spring up in regions that are enjoying building booms and healthy economies -- major metropolitan areas such as New York, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago. Smaller cities -- such as St. Louis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Ariz., Troy, Mich., and High Point, N.C. -- have their own impressive centers. Houston now calls its design center ``Innova,'' because it considers itself a facility that addresses the integration of rapidly changing technologies with people, information, and furnishings in one centralized mart.

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Murray Feldman, executive director of the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, said in a recent Monitor interview there that his center has had a waiting list of manufacturers for the past two years, creating a sizeable backlog and reflecting the phenomenal population and business growth in the area over the past few decades.

He said the center is now proceeding with a planned expansion, to be ready in 1988, which will add 400,000 square feet of showroom space as well as a terraced parking structure, a 450-seat theater, a 6,000-square-foot museum gallery, a large outdoor amphitheater, and a public plaza that will feature public art.

``Design centers have come to fill an important need because a lot of retailers had become too complacent,'' says Robert Zinkon, a showplace consultant in San Francisco. ``We will be putting much more emphasis now on making the consumer more aware of what we have to offer.''

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