Like the smiley face, the peace sign and other ubiquitous symbols, the pink plastic lawn flamingo actually had an inventor. But Don Featherstone never imagined the life his creation would lead.
Millions of Americans bought the artificial flamingo he designed in 1957 to add flair to an otherwise humdrum suburban landscape. Others embraced them with irony as a symbol of bad taste. Still others — especially legions of college students — loved the fake bird’s goofiness and planted flocks outside the houses of unsuspecting friends.
The reasons for the flamingo’s enduring appeal mystified its creator. “I wish the hell I knew,” Featherstone said in 1997, when his invention turned 40, “because I’d do it again.”
Featherstone, whose flamingo was one of more than 600 plastic ornaments he designed during his career, died Monday in Fitchburg, Mass., of Lewy body dementia, said his wife, Nancy. He was 79.
He designed the flamingo for Union Products, a Massachusetts plastics company where he worked for more than four decades. He eventually became a part-owner and president.
Although many of his other designs sold better, none stirred as much fervor as the species he dubbed Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus.
The son of a woolen mill supervisor, Featherstone was born Jan. 25, 1936, in Worcester, Mass. His parents recognized his talent and enrolled him in private art lessons when he was in grade school.
After high school, he attended the Worcester Art Museum School. A man who worked in the school’s office mentioned a job opening at Union Products, but warned him that he would hate it there.
Featherstone, however, wanted to earn a living. A week after graduating, he went to work at Union.
His first assignment was designing a duck. He bought a live duck from a nearby farm and studied it for six weeks. He named it Charlie, gave it baths in his sink and set up mirrors so that Charlie would think he had friends.
His artificial duck was a hit and led Featherstone’s bosses to suggest a flamingo.
This time, Featherstone did not go find a live model. He turned to National Geographic, which had run a feature on the creatures it called “Ballerinas in Pink.” After much study, Featherstone sculpted a male-female pair, one with its head erect and the other looking down.
The pink plastic bird became embedded in American culture. The Smithsonian kept a pair, which Smithsonian magazine called “unlikely fixtures of a certain kind of high-end sensibility, a shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness.”
Avant-garde filmmaker John Waters melted some in his 1972 classic about a drag queen, “Pink Flamingos.” Four decades later, Disney made a film about two garden gnomes who fall in love (2011’s “Gnomeo and Juliet”) and named the wisecracking plastic flamingo character after Featherstone.
“It’s an honor,” Featherstone said of the Disney character, adding that it was “somewhat like me.”
But if anyone asked what he did for a living, “he never said anything about the pink flamingo,” said Nancy Featherstone, who described her husband as a humble man who never let his unusual success go to his head.
He didn’t mind dropping hints, however. Every summer, he and his wife would display 57 flamingos next to the driveway of their Victorian house. He often wore flamingo-themed clothes, all made by Nancy, whom he married in 1976. In fact, the couple always dressed in matching outfits that she sewed.
Besides his wife, he is survived by two children from a previous marriage, Harold Featherstone and Judith Nelson; four grandchildren and two-great-grandchildren.
On the 30th anniversary of his most famous creation, Featherstone agreed to cast his signature on it, which helped collectors distinguish the many imitations from the originals.
The signed objects caused the designer to brag a little, but even then he didn’t take himself too seriously.
“The only way you could see my signature,” he once told Massachusetts’ Telegram & Gazette, " is: Lay on your back and look up the butt of the flamingo. There aren’t that many people willing to do that.”