Fa­ther of tacky but en­dur­ing lawn icon

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Elaine Woo elaine. woo @ latimes. com

Like the smi­ley face, the peace sign and other ubiq­ui­tous sym­bols, the pink plas­tic lawn f lamingo ac­tu­ally had an in­ven­tor. But Don Feather­stone never imag­ined the life his cre­ation would lead.

Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans bought the ar­ti­fi­cial f lamingo he de­signed in 1957 to add f lair to an oth­er­wise hum­drum sub­ur­ban land­scape. Oth­ers em­braced them with irony as a sym­bol of bad taste. Still oth­ers — es­pe­cially le­gions of col­lege stu­dents — loved the fake bird’s goofi­ness and planted f locks out­side the houses of un­sus­pect­ing friends.

The rea­sons for the f lamingo’s en­dur­ing ap­peal mys­ti­fied its cre­ator. “I wish the hell I knew,” Feather­stone said in 1997, when his in­ven­tion turned 40, “be­cause I’d do it again.”

Feather­stone, whose f lamingo was one of more than 600 plas­tic or­na­ments he de­signed dur­ing his ca­reer, died Mon­day in Fitch­burg, Mass., of Lewy body de­men­tia, said his wife, Nancy. He was 79.

He de­signed the f lamingo for Union Prod­ucts, a Mas­sachusetts plas­tics com­pany where he worked for more than four decades. He even­tu­ally be­came a part- owner and pres­i­dent.

Although many of his other de­signs sold bet­ter, none stirred as much fer­vor as the species he dubbed Phoeni­copterus ru­ber plasticus.

The son of a woolen mill su­per­vi­sor, Feather­stone was born Jan. 25, 1936, in Worces­ter, Mass. His par­ents rec­og­nized his tal­ent and en­rolled him in pri­vate art lessons when he was in grade school.

Af­ter high school, he at­tended the Worces­ter Art Mu­seum School. A man who worked in the school’s of­fice men­tioned a job open­ing at Union Prod­ucts, but warned him that he would hate it there.

Feather­stone, how­ever, wanted to earn a liv­ing. A week af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he went to work at Union.

His f irst as­sign­ment was de­sign­ing a duck. He bought a live duck from a nearby farm and stud­ied it for six weeks. He named it Char­lie, gave it baths in his sink and set up mir­rors so that Char­lie would think he had friends.

His ar­ti­fi­cial duck was a hit and led Feather­stone’s bosses to sug­gest a f lamin- go.

This time, Feather­stone did not go f ind a live model. He turned to Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, which had run a fea­ture on the crea­tures it called “Bal­leri­nas in Pink.” Af­ter much study, Feather­stone sculpted a male- fe­male pair, one with its head erect and the other look­ing down.

The pink plas­tic bird be­came em­bed­ded in Amer­i­can cul­ture. The Smith­so­nian kept a pair, which Smith- so­nian mag­a­zine called “un­likely f ix­tures of a cer­tain kind of high- end sen­si­bil­ity, a short­hand for tongue- incheek tack­i­ness.”

Avant- garde f ilm­maker John Wa­ters melted some in his 1972 clas­sic about a drag queen, “Pink Flamin­gos.” Four decades later, Dis­ney made a f ilm about two gar­den gnomes who fall in love ( 2011’ s “Gnomeo and Juliet”) and named the wise­crack­ing plas­tic f lamingo char­ac­ter af­ter Feather­stone.

“It’s an honor,” Feather­stone said of the Dis­ney char­ac­ter, adding that it was “some­what like me.”

But if any­one asked what he did for a liv­ing, “he never said any­thing about the pink f lamingo,” said Nancy Feather­stone, who de­scribed her hus­band as a hum­ble man who never let his un­usual suc­cess go to his head.

He didn’t mind drop­ping hints, how­ever. Ev­ery sum­mer, he and his wife would dis­play 57 f lamin­gos next to the drive­way of their Vic­to­rian house. He of­ten wore f lamingo- themed clothes, all made by Nancy, whom he mar­ried in 1976. In fact, the cou­ple al­ways dressed in match­ing out­fits that she sewed.

Be­sides his wife, he is sur­vived by two chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage, Harold Feather­stone and Ju­dith Nel­son; four grand­chil­dren and two- great- grand­chil­dren.

On the 30th an­niver­sary of his most fa­mous cre­ation, Feather­stone agreed to cast his sig­na­ture on it, which helped dis­tin­guish im­i­ta­tions from the orig­i­nals. The signed ob­jects caused the de­signer to brag a lit­tle, but even then he didn’t take him­self too se­ri­ously.

“The only way you could see my sig­na­ture,” he once told the Mas­sachusetts Tele­gram & Gazette, “is: Lay on your back and look up the butt of the f lamingo. There aren’t that many peo­ple will­ing to do that.”

Amy Sancetta As­so­ci­ated Press

PRETTY I N PINK Don Feather­stone never un­der­stood the f lamin­goes’ last­ing ap­peal. “I wish the hell I knew, be­cause I’d do

it again,” he said. When asked what he did for a liv­ing, he never men­tioned his big­gest suc­cess.

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