Visual Culture

How One Man’s Pink Plastic Flamingo Landed on Lawns across the World

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jun 5, 2018 10:03PM

Excerpt from Don Featherstone and Tom Herzing, The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass, 1999. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

Mark A. Rau, Walkin’ My Baby Back Home. Excerpt from Don Featherstone and Tom Herzing, The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass, 1999. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

When Don Featherstone graduated from art school in 1957, he had no intention of creating the world’s most famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) lawn ornament. But that’s precisely what he did, several months later, upon hatching the plastic pink flamingo—that neon totem of tropical tackiness.

Since then, the Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus, as Featherstone playfully anointed his creation, has been reproduced more than 20 million times. In the process, it’s become more than just a flamboyant decorating device. The pink flamingo is a barometer of taste; the brunt of jokes; the city of Madison, Wisconsin’s official bird; a symbol of LGBTQ pride; and the titular inspiration for a fabulously naughty 1972 cult film by John Waters.

It’s also become synonymous with Featherstone himself, an artist who enthusiastically embraced his legacy as the progenitor of a splashy, mass-produced product. “You don’t take yourself too seriously,” he’d often joke to his wife. “Because you’re not getting out alive anyway.”

Featherstone was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1936, and graduated from the school of the Worcester Art Museum at the age of 21. He loved sculpting, but had no burning ambitions to establish his own studio. So when he got wind of a job opening at Union Products, a local company specializing in plastic lawn decorations, he applied. That decision launched what would become his life’s work.


His first assignment was to sculpt a plastic duck (the resonance between his last name and his professional affiliation with fowl was never lost on Featherstone). He wanted to do it right, so he bought a live version of the aquatic bird and brought it home. After placing the duck carefully in the sink so that he could sketch it, he released it into a park. Featherstone’s higher-ups were pleased with the results, but it was was his next task—to come up with a design for a pink flamingo—that defined his career (or, as The New York Times has quipped, “blew his duck out of the water”).

Live flamingos weren’t easy to come by in Worcester (they’re native to South America, Africa, and according to a recent study, the state of Florida).  But as luck would have it, National Geographic published a feature on the crane-necked creatures at just the right time. Featherstone chose two images of birds from the article (titled “Ballerinas in Pink”) to work from. In one, the bird stood tall; in the other, it was bent over, in the midst of snacking.

It took Featherstone about three weeks to sculpt the birds from clay, adding hooked beaks and ridges representing feathers. Later that year, the forms emerged from the Union Products factory in sunset-pink plastic, complete with wire legs sharp enough to pierce even the thickest, fertilizer-saturated lawns. They were sold in pairs, via the Sears catalog, for $2.76 a box. The listing came with the helpful description: “Place in garden, lawn, to beautify landscape.”

They were an instant hit, selling by the thousands and spreading over suburban yards across the country. But they were just as quickly reviled as markers of bad taste. “Working-class homeowners readily planted it on their modest lawns—a nod to the marble or bronze sculpture on vaster properties,” recalled historian Jenny Price in 2006. “And art critics promptly pegged it as a prime example of the despicable spread of kitsch.”

But instead of faltering under the criticism, the plastic flamingo’s popularity thrived on its reputation as a symbol of kitsch. Featherstone himself admitted this was an important ingredient of the lawn ornament’s success. “We sold people tropical elegance in a box for less than $10,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2007, when asked why he thought his flamingos flew off the shelves. “Before that, only the wealthy could afford to have bad taste.”

Steven Smith, Pretty in Pink. Excerpt from Don Featherstone and Tom Herzing, The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass, 1999. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

R.C. Fulwiler, Purple Passion. Excerpt from Don Featherstone and Tom Herzing, The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass, 1999. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

By the 1970s, members of the American counterculture had latched onto the bird as not only a symbol of tackiness, but of resistance to cultural norms. In Waters’s “Pink Flamingo,” a yard dotted with plastic flamingos served as the backdrop for a story about a bold, brash drag queen. Before long, the lawn ornament was popping up in gay pride parades.

Then, in 1979, a group of University of Wisconsin–Madison students covered the lawn outside their dean’s office with 1,000 flamingos—a playful affront to the administration. The plastic bird, as Price has written, “had become a signpost for the transgression of social and cultural convention.”

All the while, Pop art and its celebration of mass-produced imagery was making its way into the art-historical canon. By the ’80s, rebel artists like Jeff Koons were spinning kitsch into high-art gold—so it’s not surprising that, in the late 1990s, MOCA Los Angeles started stocking its gift shop with Featherstone’s flamingos.

As the plastic birds made their mark on American culture high and low, Featherstone kept working for Union Products. During his tenure, he designed over 600 lawn ornaments, including elephant-shaped watering cans, Santa Clauses, and planters resembling swans (flowers poked up from the space between the bird’s neck and its tail feathers). According to Featherstone, the swan actually sold better than his flamingos. “But no one ever writes about the plastic swan,” he once quipped. “That hurts its little plastic feelings, but what can you do?”

Eventually, Featherstone shimmied up the ranks to become president of Union Products. All the while, he relished the bit of glory his sculptural pink flamingo brought him.

The creature could be read as something of Featherstone’s alter-ego. Like his most famous creation, the artist resisted dominant tastes and trends. Throughout his later years, he and his wife wore matching outfits—always flamboyantly patterned. More than 40 of the getups were made from fabric covered in different flamingo motifs, and the couple kept a brood of 57 plastic flamingos in their backyard. “I say it isn't poor taste,” he once told the Tribune. “It's what you do with it that's poor taste.”

By the time Featherstone passed away in 2015, you could say he’d become one with his invention. The color of the sheets that covered his deathbed? Plastic-flamingo pink. While Featherstone is no longer with us, his Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus lives on, preserved across kitsch and high culture alike.

Alexxa Gotthardt