Donald Featherstone, creator of the iconic pink flamingo lawn ornament, died on June 22nd at the age of 79. Featherstone created numerous bird and animal sculptures throughout his career, but his flamingo lawn ornament took on a life of its own, becoming an icon of American kitsch and appropriated by numerous subcultures throughout its almost sixty-year history.
When it was first designed in 1957, the flamingo was not an icon of kitsch. As Jennifer Price recounts in her essay “The Plastic Pink Flamingo,” plastic was new and pink wasn’t tacky – appliances were “passion pink” or “sunset pink,” and Elvis bought a pink car. The flamingo was marketed primarily to working class families who could personalize their uniform suburban lawns with the decoration. Featherstone describes the appeal of his creation, saying: “A woman could pick up a flamingo at the store and come home with a piece of tropical elegance under her arm to change her humdrum house.”
But the flamingo didn’t remain a symbol of elegance. Pink Flamingos was a film by John Waters about a 300-pound drag queen living in a trailer park trying to be the “filthiest person alive.” The flamingo became a symbol of gay culture, but the pink flamingo became equated with tackiness, and was picked up by middle class families who displayed the flamingos ironically. The irony was sometimes at the expense of the less cultured. Waters says that to “understand bad taste one has to have very good taste.” In the eighties, yuppies would push the boundaries of their affluent upbringings with symbols of low or pop culture, such as the flamingo. Price writes, “The crossing of boundaries remained a badge of identity, but it was now safer, and very often a matter of style.” Good taste was defined by knowing what to mock, the pink flamingo included.
This was a great departure from the pink flamingo Featherstone made to brighten the yards of hardworking housewives in the fifties. Price describes his creation’s history as baffling to him. People responded in a similar way to the matching handmade outfits he and his wife wore everyday without fail for 35 years. Nancy Featherstone tells the Guardian that people wanted to psychoanalyze the way they dressed and suggest dependency issues. “All it is,” she says, “is a positive reflection of the nature of our relationship. We’re a matched set.”
Price suggests that the power of the pink flamingo might reside in its unfinished nature, how it was less realistic than Featherstone’s other bird sculptures. Featherstone did not entirely finalize what the pink flamingo was, and perhaps this allowed it to suggest so many meanings for so many different groups of people. Whether clothes or flamingos, one never knows what your creation might end up meaning.