If John James Audubon had been able to work in plastics, things might have turned out differently. Instead, we are today marking the passing of Donald Featherstone, father of the high kitsch, hot pink, wire-legged plastic lawn flamingo—perhaps the most famous bird representation in history.
Featherstone, who succumbed on Monday after years of battling Lewy body disease, a form of dementia, created his icon in 1957 while working as a designer for Union Products Inc. in Leominster, Massachusetts. It was the classically trained sculptor’s second attempt at immortalizing bird life. For his first, a duck, Featherstone actually caught a live specimen, the New York Times reported, later releasing his model in a local park (a fate preferable to that of several of Audubon’s subjects).
A live flamingo proved more elusive, and Featherstone relied on photos from National Geographic to achieve his not-terribly-lifelike confection. The resulting creature (he dubbed it Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus) delighted irony-free suburbanites and arch post-modernists alike; it became a symbol of gay culture in the 1970s (inspired by the 1972 film Pink Flamingos) and won Featherstone an Ig Nobel Prize in 1996 (the award “honors achievements that make people laugh then think”).
Naturally, the bird’s breakout success led to spinoffs, including a company that would cover an unsuspecting recipient’s lawn with dozens of them in the dark of night (Flamingo Surprise), and, of course, the infamous Flabongo. Union ceased production in 2006, citing the rising cost of oil, but the lawn flamingo would not be put down so easily: The nearby Massachusetts Cado Company bought the breeding rights, and they now retail for about $15 a pop.
Featherstone and his wife never got rich off their plastic progeny, but they got a lot of mileage out them, sporting matching flamingo-patterned attire to parties and generally riding the things for all they were worth. And while Featherstone’s own flight may have come to an end, his creation is sure to remain rooted in the Astroturf of popular culture for decades to come.