An American Hero, the Man Who Designed the Plastic Lawn Flamingo, Dies

In Depth

Donald Featherstone, a man with the perfect name for the legacy he left on this earth, has died at the age of 79. Featherstone designed the plastic lawn flamingo, one of earth’s most useless, beloved and beautiful tchotchkes.

Featherstone, the Associated Press reports, died of Lewy body dementia, a type of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. He came up with the lawn flamingo after finishing art school in the ‘50s while working at the plastics company Union Products, a company he remained at for almost half a century.

Featherstone modeled the design after photos of flamingos from National Geographic, he told the Chicago Tribune in 2007. “I like to think it was the design,” he said in an interview, of why the flamingos became so popular. “No, seriously, we sold people tropical elegance in a box for less than $10. Before that, only the wealthy could afford to have bad taste.” As the New York Times wrote of the object’s reception as an example of how 1950s trash progressed from being considered “kitsch” to being considered “high art”:

Sears sold the bird for $2.76 a pair: “Place in garden, lawn, to beautify landscape,” the 1957 catalog read. Working-class homeowners readily planted it on their modest lawns — a nod to the marble or bronze sculpture on vaster properties — and art critics promptly pegged it as a prime example of the despicable spread of kitsch. In the 1960s, the suburban lawn flamingo — cheap, mass-produced, artificial and unusually neon pink — was widely reviled as the dregs of bad taste.

At one point, Featherstone had 57 in his backyard, though the flamingo is only one of many plastic lawn ornaments he designed. In 1999, he wrote a book on his creation, entitled The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass.

As the Boston Globe reports, Featherstone’s name still graces the bottom of each flamingo, after a brief period in which it was removed when Union Products was bought by another company:

Millions of flamingos later, as his creation neared its 30th anniversary, the company added Mr. Featherstone’s signature so fans would know they were getting an original. His name adorns each plastic tush, Calvin Klein-style. “My name is right there on the bottom,” he told the Boston Herald in 1996. “Just like Calvin did with his jeans.”

In 2013, Featherstone’s wife Nancy wrote a popular piece for The Guardian about how the two of them dressed in matching outfits for decades (see above). “Whenever I see flamingo fabric, I buy some and make us an outfit; we now have more than 40 in their own special closet,” she wrote.

Donald used to have to travel for business and when I packed his case, I’d tell him which outfit to wear on which day, so we coordinated even though we were apart. It helped us feel connected to each other. But his boss realised Donald was much more productive if I came along, too, so I’d help out at the conventions. It was good for business, because people would seek out our stall year after year to see what we were wearing.
We don’t like to be apart. Donald proposed on our first date and we’ve been together almost all the time since. If you want to do things by yourself, why get married? Why have separate hobbies? We never argue – Donald says he learned long ago to say, “Yes, dear”, but in fact it’s because we have a strong foundation. Being with him is never an effort.

“They have been called very tacky, but more than not, they’ve been called fun,” Donald said of the flamingos in an interview with the Leominster Champion, adding (now quite poignantly), “We’ve had a request for a new set to be included in someone’s wake and funeral. The person loved their flamingos, so we went to the wake and there they were on the sides of the casket. The birds went to the cemetery with the flowers and stood at the grave site.”

“You know, Donald always said, ‘You don’t take yourself too seriously because you’re not getting out alive anyway,’” said Nancy.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Charles Krupa/AP

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