By David Van Biema
Updated May 19, 1986 12:00 PM

Some things you cannot imagine being invented, cannot quite conceive being produced. Some things are just there, part of the American cultural landscape, as if they had been extruded whole from the popular psyche. Fuzzy dashboard dice, for instance. Who could ever imagine anyone sitting down and inventing fuzzy dice? Or pink flamingo lawn ornaments. They couldn’t have been thought up—they just exist, plastic torsos balanced proudly on metal legs, bodies fading with each winter’s snow, embodying all that is tacky in America, all the would-be exotic, our whimsy molded in polyethylene. Invented? Pshaw. They were born in the back of our collective mind. One day an empty lawn, the next a flamingo. It is merely the spontaneous generation of American kitsch.—Right?

Meet Don Featherstone. “Ducks are up 30 percent this year,” he says conversationally. “But for the first time ever, flamingos will outsell ducks.” In the background, as Featherstone speaks, there can be heard a steady swish-thunk, swish-thunk, swish-thunk. That is the noise of pink, plastic, 34-inch birds hot out of a blow-molding machine, sliding down a chute at the rate of one pair per minute. “The penguin is also coming up in sales,” Featherstone continues, “but I don’t think it’ll ever be a flamingo.” There is a pause. “I’d be happy to be remembered as the man who did the pink flamingo.”

Don Featherstone, your time has come.

It happened like this. In the late ’40s, just as the newfound American mobility was turning Florida into a tourist magnet, America had a thing for flamingos. There were flamingo decals and flamingo shower curtains. There was even a flamingo lawn ornament, although it was flat. Then, in 1957, a forward-looking company called Union Products, Inc., in Leominster, Mass. began to experiment with 3-D ornaments. It put out a 3-D cat, a 3-D toadstool and even a fake fire hydrant. None of them sold. But Union, which had recently hired the services of a fresh-faced 21-year-old art student, did not give up. The student had done a hell of a job with an item called Charlie the Duck, and Union wanted him to press on.

For Charlie, Don Featherstone had bought a white duck from a duck farm and lived with it six months doing life studies before sitting down to sculpt. Obviously, this was not something you wanted to try with a flamingo. Nevertheless, he still put in a month of picture research before touching clay. Then, in a fit of creative fervor, he completed it in a week, from rosy breast to ebon beak. Union had the plastic bird out four months later.

As they say, it flew. Though it didn’t catch up with ducks until this year, the flamingo ornament nested happily in the American psyche, in the part marked Lovable Oddities. Various pink flamingo societies were formed. In the radical 70s, college campuses were “flamingoed” with hundreds of pink avians overnight. Bizarre filmmaker John Waters named an opus after the bird. And of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans put them on their lawns.

Not that Featherstone can figure out exactly who the hundreds of thousands are. “Who’s buying these things?” he asks. “Nobody knows. You’d think it was people in poor neighborhoods. But we see plenty of them in good areas. Some people are ashamed of them, so they put them in their backyards. I’ve heard there are some on Beacon Hill.” Union Products does not keep state-by-state records on where the birds go, but he notes, “New Jersey buys a lot of them.”

Wherever they go, we are in the middle of a flamingo boom, and it hasn’t beaked yet. Sales began to rise in the early ’80s, when “retro” became hip. Then came Miami Vice, which, by featuring the live item in its opening montage, did the same thing for the lawn-flamingo industry it has done for the linen jacket biz: Union will sell 250,000 birds this year, as against 80,000 in 1976. The surge bothers some aficionados. “It could be the Unicorn of the ’80s,” says Amy Loughery, owner of FLA.Mingos, a Madeira Beach, Fla. specialty shop. “It’s getting too mainstream for me.”

Nonsense, says Featherstone. “The flamingo is not a cult.” The more mainstream it gets, the happier he is. For in a storybook twist, the erstwhile creative genius is now a vice-president of Union, which does a $12 million business annually as a leading producer (there are two others) of flamingos in the world. It is flamingos, in part, that have financed a large Victorian house in Fitchburg, Mass., which he shares with his wife, Nancy (“Before we met, her parents had concrete cherubs on their lawn,” snipes Don. “Her folks are Italian”), and with his many collections: mechanical birds, frog-shaped items, antique record players and leaded-glass lamps, which he makes himself. On the lawn stand 16 flamingos.

One of the things that has irritated Featherstone over the years is curiosity shops that sell “antique” flamingos for as much as $50 a pair. So well was the original designed that the casting die has been only minimally altered in 29 years, making a 1957 flamingo exactly the same as a $4 1986 model.

Up until now, that is. As of this coming winter, there will be a change in Union Products’ flamingos. Out from under the 50-year-old vice-president, after 29 years, rises the ego of the 21-year-old art student, and henceforth, embossed beneath the bird’s butt will be the artist’s signature. “I want recognition,” Don Featherstone says. After all, he points out, his brainchild “has beautified America…it is America.”

Right on. Now you out there, who invented fuzzy dice, could you please stand up?