Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
What the iconic lawn ornament says about class and aesthetics.
When it comes to planning cities in America, we tend to think of beauty as subjective—which, as some philosophers argue, can result in development so ugly it’s bad for emotional and economic well-being. We reserve our taste judgments for something far more mundane: The suburban front lawn.
Consider the complex aesthetics of the plastic pink lawn flamingo. Its inventor, Donald Featherstone, died Monday at the age of 79. A sculptor by training, Featherstone created the plastic injection-molded flamingo as a 3-D product designer at Massachusetts’ Union Plastics in 1957, and they were an immediate hit. In a time when middle and working-class Americans increasingly found themselves in look-alike suburban tract houses, the pink flamingo was a stake of individuality in the ground, an assertion of aesthetic preference.
“You had to mark your house somehow,” Featherstone told Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. “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.”
But for residents of wealthier, longer established neighborhoods, lawn and garden maintenance was a matter of disecretion, not hot-pink individuality. To purchase of a flamingo for your lawn was to show an earnest, unironic appreciation of inexpensive, mass-produced art objects—the sort that “refined” palates (and their homeowner’s associations) would reject. Already, the pink flamingo was a class marker.
In the 1960s and 70s, that got complicated. While environmentalists pointed fingers at factory plastics and the suburban conquest of nature, artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg elevated pop-culture objects to high-art status. John Waters’ shock-schlock film Pink Flamingos came out in 1972, marking the bird as the ultimate indicator of kitsch. The pink flamingo was maligned, but then re-defined as something so bad it was good—so superlatively tacky that appreciators of the finer things could indeed see its aesthetic value. Flamingos on the lawn were an expression of “deliberate camp”—a knowing, tongue-in-cheek cultural statement. “We're proud that we've made poor taste affordable for everyone,” Featherstone once told the Hartford Courant.
This turned sour by the 1980s, by which point the plastic flamingo was less of an objet d’art for the working class and more of an inside joke among the upper-middle-class. Nowadays there are businesses that, under cover of night, will place a flamboyance of flamingos (that’s a group of the birds) in your friend’s yard as a deliberately embarrassing birthday salute. There are also “flamingo fundraisers,” in which charity groups “flock” their neighbors’ yards with the ornaments, extracting donations from “victims” in exchange for the removal of the birds. Pink flamingos have become a way of “hinting at one’s own good taste by reveling in the bad taste of others,” as Smithsonian wrote.
But the goalposts of taste—and tastelessness—never stop moving. Last week, news broke about Julie Baker of Baltimore, who received a demand from an anonymous neighbor that she “tone down” her “relentlessly gay” yard (decorated with rainbow-colored candle jars and flower pots). In response, Baker raised more than $30,000 on a crowdfunding site in order to make her house “even gayer.” "Needless to say... I need more rainbows ... Many, many more rainbows," Baker wrote. She told journalists that she’d rainbow her roof if she got enough money.
Rainbows may not be quite the same as pink flamingos, but implicit in the Baltimore story is the neighbor’s belief that there is such thing as “good taste” for a lawn (fewer colors, apparently), and that Baker would acquiesce to that cultural standard if aggressively encouraged. Baker, instead, is aiming for the rainbow-iest yard possible. May I suggest she look into this multi-colored set of lawn flamingos while she conscientiously disavows her neighbor’s aesthetic values? They aren’t Donald Featherstone originals, but they’ll get the job done.