Don Featherstone's Pink Flamingos Float On

Pink Flamingo
Pink flamingo decorations have gone from lawn ornament kitsch to staples of celebrity Vines and yacht parties. Sunnylife

Whether strapped to a yacht, drifting in an infinity pool or supporting a heap of bikini-clad Australians, the pink flamingo has soared from lawn ornament to a global symbol of summertime since it was designed in 1957 by Don Featherstone, who died last week.

Several companies have recently rolled out inflatable flamingo pool toys that they say are homages to Featherstone's original. The Australian lifestyle brand Sunnylife introduced a floating flamingo last September, in time for Aussie summer, while Giant Flamingo markets its version as "the original" and also unveiled an inflatable in September. Urban Outfitters offers yet another a version.

"It's been a massive success," says Joel Bartfeld, brand director at Sunnylife, which sells its flamingo through J.Crew, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's, all of which have sold out of the product. Bartfeld says Featherstone's flamingo "absolutely" inspired Sunnylife's: "It's pretty universally recognized. Australia is very heavily influenced by U.S. pop culture."

A representative for Giant Flamingo also recognizes the Featherstone connection, saying by email: "The world is a paler shade of pink without Donald Featherstone. Don believed that life was all about making people happy, and we'd like to continue this mission by bringing a flock-load of fun to households all around the world, one Giant Flamingo at a time."

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Featherstone died on June 22 at age 79. He designed the flamingo in 1957 for plastics company Union Products. It was a time, Smithsonian magazine wrote in 2012, when people were growing tired of post-World War II suburbia and their cookie-cutter front yards. "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," Featherstone told Smithsonian.

It was also a time, as Smithsonian and The New York Times point out, when people considered plastics the thing of the future, evoking one memorable word from The Graduate.

Pop culture historians credit filmmaker John Waters with helping Featherstone's creation achieve cult status with his 1972 film Pink Flamingos. After the movie—which New York magazine called "beyond pornography"—the lawn decorations went from tacky to a sort of revered kitsch.

"When it originally came out," Waters tells Newsweek, "they thought it was pretty and it was kind of touching. It was sort of like a country decoration for kind of naive people that were honest." Decades later, he says, Featherstone's creation "became something that was looked at ironically."

In recent years, attitudes about flamingo decorations have changed yet again. "It's gone through many different meanings, from innocence to camp to smart-ass to prank," Waters says, calling it now "a smart-assed yuppie thing." He adds: "People have them in a way making fun of the people that originally had them."

Style bloggers predict the flamingo inflatables could prove as popular as the inflatable swans that The Wall Street Journal declared in 2013 were taking over the Hamptons. The pool party centerpieces are a far cry from their stuck-in-the-lawn flamingo grandparents. Reality TV star Lauren Conrad blogged about the flamingos earlier this week, and in April singer Miley Cyrus posted a Vine of her floating on one, saying, "Flamingo on fleek." This latest iteration of the flamingo decoration seems more Spring Breakers than Pink Flamingos. (Waters would likely approve: He once ranked the former the best film of 2013.)

The Giant Flamingo and Sunnylife versions go for about $70. The Urban Outfitters one costs $55. J.Crew describes the product as "chic—not to mention functional."

"It's still a stylish take on kitsch," Bartfeld says. "It's something that's recognizable, that's going to look fantastic in your pool, that's going to create some attention, that's going to be an Instagram-worthy moment. The flamingo ticks all of those boxes."

"The flamingo kind of symbolizes summer and reminds you of being on vacation," says Brandi Lisenbe of lifestyle blog Mucho Mucho Bueno Bueno. She says she displays plastic flamingos in her yard and recently bought the inflatable one after seeing it on Instagram: "I had to have it. Everyone's drawn to pink, I think, and it just makes people happy." Her friends have brought them along to yacht parties in Greece and Croatia, she says.

Though Featherstone wasn't thinking "chic" or "Instagram-worthy" half a century ago, his original has become a Smithsonian artifact and inspired a board game, plastic cake decorations and art projects. Even Union Products now sells special versions, including a zombie edition.

"I'm sure you can buy one in a sex shop that you can have sex with," Waters says. "That will be the end of it."