Donald Featherstone, plastic pink flamingo creator, dies at 79
Donald Featherstone, who had just finished art school when he created the plastic pink flamingo, saw suburban neighborhoods as a vast blank canvas.
“An empty lawn is like an empty coffee table,” he told the Globe in 2008, a year after his most famous design turned 50. “You have to put something on it.”
He was happy to help. Mr. Featherstone, who was 79 when he died Monday in Fitchburg, designed the first plastic pink flamingo in 1957 as a new employee at Union Products of Leominster.
Whether derided as tacky or treasured for their kitsch cool, his birds have dotted the cultural landscape — not to mention lawns around the world — ever since.
That design was but one of more than 650 he created, ranging from the perennially top-selling swans to an ostrich Mr. Featherstone liked a lot, even though it never took off. The pink flamingos, however, were always the most memorable.
“We sold people tropical elegance in a box for less than $10,” he told the Chicago Tribune on the birds’ golden anniversary. “Before that, only the wealthy could afford to have bad taste.”
On spindly wire legs, his pink flamingos strode into the cultural consciousness, memorably providing director John Waters with a title for his 1972 indie film.
Mr. Featherstone’s signature lawn ornaments also inspired a fund-raising phenomenon and a verb to go with it: to flock. Fund-raisers “flocked” a neighbor’s lawn by filling it with pink flamingos. An accompanying note solicited a donation to a local organization and suggested other lawns to decorate.
Mr. Featherstone’s own Fitchburg home didn’t need flocking. “I keep 57 in my back yard,” he told the Tribune in 2007, noting that the number commemorated the year of the birds’ birth, and adding that he didn’t keep them out back out of embarrassment. “I live in a college neighborhood,” he said. “If they were in the front yard, they’d never stay there.”
Born in Worcester, Mr. Featherstone grew up in Berlin, where his grandparents owned a woolen mill. The younger of two brothers, he graduated from Hudson High School and went to the School of Worcester Art Museum. When he finished, he landed a job at a design company, but left after a day.
“The boss was having a little fling with one of the secretaries,” said his wife, Nancy. “Part of Donald’s job was to warn the boss if the coast wasn’t clear. Donald wasn’t interested in getting involved in someone else’s indiscretion.”
He checked back with the art school, which said Union Products was looking for a designer. Mr. Featherstone stayed for 43 years, rising to become president before retiring in 2000. He arrived just as technology allowed the company to create three-dimensional lawn ornaments. His first design was a duck. Then came the flamingo.
“It was tough to find one around here to use as a model. But as luck would have it, National Geographic came out with a story titled ‘Ballerinas in Pink,’ ” he told the Tribune. “I selected two images — one flamingo with its head up and the other with its head down — because I knew we’d sell them in pairs. Then I sculpted the bodies in clay. It took about two or three weeks.”
Millions of flamingos later, as his creation neared its 30th anniversary, the company added Mr. Featherstone’s signature so fans would know they were getting an original. His name adorns each plastic tush, Calvin Klein-style.
The company went through a couple of ownership changes and is now part of Cado manufacturing in Fitchburg. After Mr. Featherstone retired, Union Products briefly removed his name from the flamingo mold.
Marc Abrahams, editor and a founder of the journal Annals of Improbable Research, helped lead protests that got Mr. Featherstone’s name restored. Abrahams is founder and host of the Ig Nobel Prizes, one of which he presented to Mr. Featherstone in 1996 “for his ornamentally evolutionary invention, the plastic pink flamingo.”
Mr. Featherstone, Abrahams added, also was “an astoundingly wonderful painter” whose creations “looked like they were done by a master from the Renaissance.” Only visitors to the Featherstone home saw them.
Mr. Featherstone’s first marriage ended in divorce.
He was at a trade show in Chicago in 1975 when he met Nancy Santino, who was there with her father, a manufacturer’s representative. Before marrying in 1976, they courted by phone and Mr. Featherstone flew to see her in St. Louis every other weekend.
“Donald had been raised very formally and he always wore a suit and a tie and a long-sleeve shirt,” she said. He was uncomfortable in the St. Louis heat “and my mother said, ‘You know how to fix that. All you have to do is make him an open-collared short-sleeve shirt. He’ll put it on because he won’t want to hurt your feelings.’ ”
After the couple settled in Massachusetts, she began making matching blouses for herself from the colorful fabric left over from his shirts. “Then Donald suggested I make our bottom halves match, too, so we started amassing a whole wardrobe of clothes,” she wrote in 2013 for the London newspaper The Guardian. “Initially we matched only at weekends, but as I grew adept at making more complex garments, such as jackets, sweaters, and coats, we decided to go full time with our identical look.”
After 37 years of dressing alike, she wrote, “we have four wardrobes of twin outfits, hanging two by two, organized by season and occasion.”
Dressed alike, they attended parties and events every year, invited by groups that wanted to meet the inventor of the plastic pink flamingo. “It was a great ride,” Nancy said in an interview. “You know, Donald always said, ‘You don’t take yourself too seriously because you’re not getting out alive anyway.’ ”
Some 20 years ago, he developed a hand tremor. His wife thought it might be the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease, and many years passed before he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. He died in the Caldwell Home elder care facility in Fitchburg.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Featherstone leaves two children, Judith Nelson and Harold, both of Leominster; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Joseph Church in Fitchburg.
Mr. Featherstone lived long enough to see a Disney movie character named after him — a pink flamingo, of course — in the 2011 film “Gnomeo and Juliet,” about a romance between garden gnomes.
During his last days, a pair of pink flamingos flanked the fireplace in his room at Caldwell, and he slept on sheets of a flamingo hue.
“Donald was a unique, one-of-a kind individual,” his wife said. “There was no one like Donald. Absolutely no one.”