Perhaps second only to the gnome, the plastic pink flamingo might be the best-known lawn ornament in the nation. The creator of what the Associated Press calls “the ultimate symbol of American lawn kitsch” was an artist named Donald Featherstone. He died yesterday in Fitchburg, Mass., at the age of 79 after fighting Lewy body dementia.
Featherstone, an art school graduate, got a job at Union Products in 1957, when a friend called and told him the company was looking for someone to design and sculpt plastic products. “They were making flat plastic ornaments at first and were looking to go three dimensional,“ he told the Leominster Champion in 2006. His first designs depicted a girl with a water can and a boy with a dog. Next came a duck, for which Featherstone bought a live specimen and brought it home to study. After the sculpture was completed, its live model was set free in a park.
Then, the flamingo – a product that has outlasted the company that created it. Since a live specimen of the tropical bird wasn’t a possibility in New England, Featherstone used photographs from National Geographic to sketch the silhouette before working with clay. It hit the market in 1958, to Featherstone’s recollection, and sold in pairs for under $3. When the popularity of the product took off, imitations hit the market, leading Featherstone to add his signature to the mold in 1986. Ten years later, he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in the art category for his work, a distinction that recognizes unusual achievements and aims to "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
For the mold’s 40th anniversary, Featherstone and his wife Nancy commemorated the occasion with a contest “for the most unusual, the funniest and the prettiest things people could do with their flamingos,” he told the Champion. “We published the photos. Nancy did the captions and it was a lot of fun.”
The resulting book, The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass is available on Amazon. Though its enduring popularity was a mystery to Featherstone – who credits the eye-catching color for its appeal – the model was just one of the 750 products he created for the company.
The plastic representation of the tropical bird is not the only long-lasting aspect of Featherstone’s life. He remained at Union Products for his entire career, rising to the position of president before he retired in 2000.
He showed that same steadfast loyalty in his personal life. He was married to his wife, Nancy, for more than 30 years. The couple often dressed alike in clothing she sewed herself. He is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Though opinions on the iconic ornament are mixed, Featherstone had nothing but positive feelings about his work. "I loved what I did, it’s all happy things. You have to figure, my creations were not things people needed in life, we had to make them want them,” he told the Champion. “Things I did made people happy, and that’s what life is all about.”