BirdmakerDon Featherstone

An artist and designer from Worcester, Mass., in 1957, a week after graduating from art school, Featherstone took a job at Union Products, a plastics company in nearby Leominster. His first assignment was to design a duck, so he bought a real duck from a farm and studied it. The resulting plastic model sold well, so Union suggested he next do a flamingo. He used a well-illustrated article in National Geographic as his model, and created a pair — a male and female. Maybe the duck sold well, but the pink plastic flamingos ignited a craze. “Place in garden, lawn, to beautify landscape,” said Sears in its 1957 catalog, where a pair cost $2.76. People either loved them or hated them, but the people who loved them bought millions, as a lawn ornament.

The state bird of Florida.

The Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus (as he dubbed them) defined kitsch, “unlikely fixtures of a certain kind of high-end sensibility, a shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness,” says Smithsonian magazine. Why were they so popular, especially in tropical areas such as Florida? “I wish the hell I knew,” Featherstone said 40 years later, “because I’d do it again.” By then, Featherstone was president of the company, and noted how ingrained his flamingo was in culture: “I’ve never seen a wedding cake with a duck on it!” In more than four decades at the company he designed 600 more plastic ornaments, and many of those products actually sold better than the flamingos, but the pink bird is the most famous. By the time the company shut down in 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles had begun selling Featherstone’s flamingos in its gift shop. But don’t fret about the company’s closure: another Massachusetts company bought the molds and copyright, and production of the birds continues. Featherstone died June 22 from Lewy body dementia. He was 79.

From This is True for 28 June 2015