Don Featherstone, the classically trained painter and talented sculptor who was best known for creating the plastic pink lawn flamingo that populated yards across suburban America, died on Monday at age 79.
"He was the nicest guy in the world," his wife Nancy Featherstone said. "He didn't have a selfish bone in his body. He was funny and had a wonderful sense of humor and he made me so happy for 40 years."
Mr. Featherstone studied art at the Worcester Art Museum and created the ornamental flamingo in 1957 for the plastics company Union Products Inc., in Leominster, Massachusetts. The flamingo was modeled after photographs of the birds that he saw in National Geographic magazine.
While originally perceived as a bit gaudy, the flamingos eventually became emblematic of American society.
“By the mid-1980s, the flamingos were transitioning from a working-class accessory to an elaborate upper-class inside joke. They furnished colorful substitutes for croquet wickets and clever themes for charity galas,” wrote Abigail Tucker for Smithsonian magazine. “The bird became a sort of plastic punch line, and, at worst, a way of hinting at one’s own good taste by reveling in the bad taste of others.”
Getting "flamingoed” or "flocked" also became a popular fundraising prank in suburban neighborhoods.
Featherstone himself defended his creation, of which millions of copies were sold throughout the years.
"People say they're tacky, but all great art began as tacky," he said in a 1997 interview.
But friends close to Featherstone say that his real artistic talent was hidden to all but those who really knew him.
"He decided it would destroy the illusion and pleasure for people who knew him for the flamingo, so he only let those very close to him see his work," said Marc Abrahams, a longtime friend.
Featherstone worked at the manufacturer Union for 43 years, inventing hundreds of products and rising to the position of president before he retired in 1999. He is survived by his wife, two children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.