Don Featherstone is an artist. You probably don’t recognize the name, but unless you have spent the last six decades on Mars, you are familiar with his work. It is likely that you even own some of his art, given that his creations have sold by the millions for over half a century.
It all began in 1957 when a young Don Featherstone, fresh out of art school, flung open his palette of possibilities and picked plastics. He fondly recalls his first creation; a 3 D duck. Like many artists, conventional wisdom was shoved aside in pursuit of perfecting his craft. For five messy and memorable months, Don shared his home with a live duck just so he could sculpt a water fowl that looked like a water fowl. In plastic and completely anatomically correct. He named the duck Charlie and later released him in Coggshall Park.
It was his second creation, however, that would become a North American icon.
One day, flipping through the pages of National Geographic, he came across a picture of a flamingo and the pink plastic garden bird was born. North Americans proved to be insatiable consumers of the bird. Decades later, when asked to explain why people still purchased an average of a quarter million pairs of flamingos every year, Don explained, “It’s tropical elegance for less than ten bucks.”
There are those for whom a “T” word other than tropical comes to mind when spotting a plastic pink flamingo. Don sees it differently. “The pink plastic flamingo isn’t tacky,” he says. “It’s what people do to them that’s tacky. If you took a tractor tire, painted it red, white and blue and surrounded it with pink flamingos, it gets to look pretty tacky, especially in front of a (run down) home.”
Tacky or not, the man raked in a bird based fortune. Remember the original duck? It might surprise you-or possibly not-to learn that for years it sold bill for beak as frequently as its pink cousin. Even more mind boggling than that, these are only two of the 600 to 800 plastic lawn ornaments that kept Don’s company, Union Products, most buoyantly afloat.
To Don’s credit, he once tried to launch a flamingo model dubbed “The Flamingo Deluxe” that sported nifty wooden yellow legs in place of the metal ones, but oddly enough, they didn’t sell.
“It’s almost like flamingo people think that real birds have metal legs in their natural state,” he lamented.
If you have a set of those wooden legged flamingos they are likely worth far more than ten bucks.
Other than the leg switch, the pink flamingo has remained virtually unchanged since its conception almost 60 years ago.
For the serious art collector, there are a few things to keep an eye out for if you want to be certain your flamingos are the genuine Featherstone original.
1. The bird’s beak must be yellow with a black tip.
2. In birds produced after 1987 Don Featherstone’s autograph will be found under the bird’s tail. It was removed briefly in 2001 but after a boycott on buying birds with unsigned butts, the signature quickly returned.
3. Featherstone Flamingos are ALWAYS sold in pairs; one in the grazing position and the other on the alert.
Don retired as president of Union Products in 2001 and five years later the company closed its doors and ceased production of the iconic pink birds. The molds were purchased and in 2010 the pink flamingos were once again flying off assembly lines, this time under Cado Products.
Don passed away on June 22, 2015 at the age of 79.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Featherstone once responded with, “I did something that people enjoyed, something that amused people. That’s so much more satisfying than say, designing something destructive like the atom bomb. And I’ll tell you something about people who put out flamingos – they’re friendlier than most people. Remember, they don’t do it for themselves, they’re doing it to entertain you.”
Hope you have a very friendly and entertaining flamingo sort of summer. I think Don would like that.