A Vision High Visibility, Eric Staller Believes in Traveling Lit

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

From the glass-walled restaurants that line Columbus Avenue in Manhattan, one evening looks much like the next. there goes another weary banker on his way home from work. There goes another yuppie couple with shopping bags from the Korean fruit stand. There goes Eric staller in his back 1967 Volks wagen with.... Hey, Wait a minute! As Staller Parks his customized car with 1,659 light tern, even the most jaded diners sit up and take notice.

Whenever a comic-strip character has a stroke of pure genius, a bulb flashes on over his head. It was like that for Staller, 40, when he hit on the idea for his incandescent art back in 1984—"an exalted moment," he recalls. Just five months later he unveiled his dazzling VW, known as Light mobile, and in 1986 he launched Bubbleboat, a dome-shaped motorboat mad from the roof of a silo and wrapped with 594 red, white and blue bulbs that flashed in hundreds of patriotic combinations. He repeated that triumph the same year with Bubbleheads, four helmets covered with flashing lights and worn by riders who sit one behind the other on a giant tricycle. With the frenzy of Manhattan as a backdrop, Staller's blinking creations are spellbinding. Once, when he took Lightmobile out for a spin, a car screeched to a halt, and comedian Charlie Callas jumped out.

"This is great!" said Callas, admiring the car. "You should go on David Letterman with this."

"I wanted to," Staller replied. "But the car would have upstaged him."

And that's not the only problem facing an artist whose medium is lights; his work attracts not only moths but thieves. Bubbleheads was stolen just this summer, but even in New York it's no cinch hiding a four-man tricycle; it was found on a nearby street. Bubbleboat hasn't been purloined, but Staller was issued a Coast Guard summons for running it without proper navigation lights. "How can you miss a flying-saucer-shaped object flashing colored lights?" Staller complains. "Some people just like to rain on my parade."

Staller's projects have always generated conflict. While studying architecture at the University of Michigan he built haystacks with tape players on the inside and earphones on the outside, through which curious passers-by could hear cows mooing, sheep bleating and pigs oinking. "I hoped to get a rise or even a positive response from anyone," says Staller. "All I got were threats that the art department would have them removed."

Things began looking up when two famous avant-gardists, dancer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, performed on campus and praised Staller's works. "It was the first time I had been called an artist," says Staller. After graduating in 1971, he moved to New York and made suitcases shaped like each of the 50 states, several with flashing lights. He also set up shop in the streets and started taking photographs of bulbs and sparklers that he swirled by hand. His outdoor photo sessions began attracting crowds, the Museum of Modern Art bought some of the photos and—click!—that's when his personal light bulb blinked on. Staller bought a Volkswagen for $750, spent another $20,000 on a generator, lights and a computer to run them, and a star—or at least a noteworthy meteor—was born. The Light-mobile has since paid for itself in art show appearances and a cameo as a pizza delivery car in the 1986 film The Money Pit.

Staller's father, a real estate dealer, and his mother, a housewife, still live in the Long Island town where he grew up, within commuting distance of their son's luminous oeuvre. "They are confused by my work but proud of me," he says. "They used to say, 'What can we tell people you do?' Now they say, 'My son, the artist.' "

These days Staller is sharing a loft—dramatically lit by his flashing sculptures—with interior designer Deborah Haffly, 34, who got to ride in the Light-mobile on their first date in 1985. "It was love at first sight," she says. "For the car, that is. I loved the car." Scattered about their domicile are plans for future Staller projects: a wall of curved lights for a Miami office building, a sequence of clear manhole covers that will be lit from below after being installed around Manhattan next year.

Staller will be happy if his forthcoming efforts attract the same attention that Lightmobile did when he and Deborah parked outside the Whitney Museum during a 1985 opening. "I was told I stole the show," he says. "But it's really the car or the boat or Bubble-heads that are the superstars. I'm just the chauffeur."

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