12/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
NEITHER RAIN NOR SLEET NOR DOUBLE parked BMWs will deter Beverly Hills postmen from their appointed rounds. But one of sculptor Nini Policappelli's mailboxes might—mostly because it's often nearly impossible to figure out that the abstract, curbside sculptures he has created are, indeed, mailboxes. "Every client of mine wailed for the mailman on the first day, very proudly, and showed how to make it work," says Policappelli, 47. "The idea is to get the mailman to play with it."
He also tries to make each of his $3,500-$l0,000 creations reflect the character of his client. For Prince Pahlavi, a brother of the late Shah of Iran, Policappelli sculpted a cubist version of a classical bust "that expressed authority." For an acquisitive businessman friend, he fashioned "Gimmie," an aluminum head "with the hand coming straight out of the brain, because that's all he thinks of—'gimmie gimmie.' I know he liked it," Policappelli adds. "He and his wife are separated now, and he got custody of the mailbox."
The Italian-born son of a lawyer-businessman and a homemaker, Policappelli grew up in Toronto and did grunt labor in a soft-drink factory, and even started an auto-parts import company before his lifelong artistic bent began to prove profitable in the mid-1970s. For four years he and his wife, Jean Lyn, ran the ritzy Beverly Hills decorating firm, Ambiente Designs, a successful venture that they continued to share after a 1981 divorce.
Now living alone in a Beverly Hills flat (with a straightforward Kmart-priced mailbox), Policappelli, with help of an assistant, produces two of his aluminum creations per month and guarantees that all adhere to postal regulations (mail slots, for example, must be 42 inches from the ground). He also drives around checking on his curbside art and has even been known to clean off unsightly bird droppings. When one of his pricey, 200-pound, anchored-in-concrete letterboxes was stolen by truck-borne thieves in September, the sculptor agonized. "I was confused," he says. "I was thinking, 'Why did they do this to me?' These mail sculptures are like my children."