Now Is the Perfect Time to Resurrect Lawn Kitsch

published Aug 25, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
kitschy lawn ornaments such as a  gnome, pink flamingo and aluminum chair
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

Stroll through any neighborhood in suburban America and you’ll see streets lined with the neat green squares known as front lawns. Often they’re mostly empty, save for a few shrubs or potted plants. In my corner of Massachusetts, front lawns boast hydrangea bushes, maybe a small fence, and little else. The focus is on the patch of lush green grass. 

Whoever decided front yards should be strait-laced little parcels of nothing must have looooved conformity. In my humble opinion, they’re boring. A new kind of curb appeal is needed — one that doesn’t inspire real estate agents to use the word “manicured” to describe it. It’s high time homeowners injected personality into their yards. Bring back the lawn ornaments of yesteryear: the plastic pink flamingos, the aluminum chairs, the gnomes, the bird baths — all of it. You see, now is the perfect time to resurrect lawn kitsch.

The first rumblings of a curb appeal revolution began in the early days of 2020. People started using their yards, porches, windows, and other elements of front yards to spread good cheer and stay in touch with their neighbors. There were painted signs with hearts and rainbows, big inflatable tube guys thanking essential workers, teddy bear scavenger hunts, and more. In a time of crisis, people used their properties to communicate and to make a statement.

That attitude has fallen to the wayside a bit. Before it fades away completely, we need to seize the moment to fill out yards with fun things. 

“I think that this kind of attachment to an empty green square of lawn is still disturbingly powerful, considering how environmentally unwise it is,” says Jenny Price, a writer, artist, and author of “Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America.”

I realize there’s a movement to abolish lawns in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives, like drought-resistant plants and rock gardens. It’s a worthy cause that I support, but what I want to say isn’t about the grass or the climate. It’s about the lawn decor — and how we need more of it. 

Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

A Brief History of Kitschy Lawn Ornaments

Perhaps the most classic example of a lawn ornament is the pink flamingo. The iconic plastic lawn fowl was invented by a man named Donald Featherstone in 1957. While working for a plastics company called Union Products in Leominster, Massachusetts, he designed the masterpiece based on photos from an issue of National Geographic. Though he designed hundreds of other plastic molds for the company, it was the pink flamingo that defined his career. Sales spiked, and his creation became a fixture of lawns across the country.

While the pink flamingo’s heyday may have passed, the lawn ornaments never really went away. They make a perfect (and tacky) throwback accessory for homeowners who want to add something extra to their plots of grass. Some folks even pull pranks on their neighbors by covering someone’s yard with the plastic birds under the cover of night, with a note along the lines of “you’ve been flocked.” The idea is for the recipient to take the birds and put them in front of someone else’s home. It’s good, old-fashioned fun, which is what yards should offer.

Lawn ornaments are nothing new, of course. They came into existence long before Featherstone’s design in the 1950s. Many historians trace the rise of front lawns in the United States back to Andrew Jackson Downing, an early founder of American landscape architecture. In his 1841 work, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” Downing sets out to help Americans beautify their yards.

“Hundreds of individuals who wish to ornament their grounds and embellish their places, are at a loss how to proceed, from the want of some leading principles, with the knowledge of which they would find it comparatively easy to produce delightful and satisfactory results,” he writes. “In the following pages I have attempted to trace out such principles, and to suggest practicable methods of embellishing our rural residences, on a scale commensurate to the views and means of our proprietors.”

Even before the mid-19th century, people around the world put accessories like fountains in their gardens. From stone animals like frogs and squirrels to lawn gnomes, which date back to the Renaissance in Europe, embellishing nature almost feels as old as nature itself. But it wasn’t until the rise of suburbs in postwar America that the plastic decorations, like Featherstone’s flamingo, really took off.

“Inexpensive plastics aided in the democratization of stuff, making more and more stuff available to more and more people,” says design historian Jeffrey Meikle, author of American Plastic: A Cultural History

In other words, it became cheaper and easier to manufacture large quantities of plastic doodads. “Maybe plastics lend themselves to a more fun, bombastic, colorful kind of design — things didn’t necessarily have to be permanent and you could buy gaudy, flashy things because they were just for fun,” Meikle continues.

Pinwheels, whirligigs, miniature lighthouses, and plenty of other bird and animal figurines made their debuts. Bathtub Madonna shrines sprang up in the yards of Roman Catholics. Aluminum lawn chairs and woven patio chairs served as colorful spots to kick back. The lawns of the working class and the lower middle class weren’t empty plots, but became places to be enjoyed.

Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

Finding the 2022 Version of the Pink Flamingo

It’s fair to call the pink flamingo (and plenty of other lawn ornaments) kitschy, but kitsch, of course, is a matter of taste. 

“What was kitsch for a Boston suburb [in the 1950s] was not kitsch for a Latino suburb somewhere,” explains Therese O’Malley, a landscaping historian.

So what is the 2022 version of the kitschy lawn ornament, the ubiquitous pink flamingo? What are the new zany baubles homeowners can display out front to bring lawn kitsch back in style? 

Maybe your version of accessorizing involves staking a flag with puppies on it into the ground. Maybe you plan to set up a rainbow-painted cornhole court near your front steps, or you’re adding a 12-foot skeleton to your cart ahead of Halloween as you read this. Or maybe the cheeky welcome mat that you couldn’t pass up at Target that is what brings a little something extra to your home’s facade. 

“It’s not a small thing if someone is going to take the effort to buy that thing and plant it in their lawn — to have something that’s public that people can see,” Price says. “They’re sort of staking their claim and saying ‘This is who lives in this house.’ It’s not a trivial question. That object has some real meaning.”

It’s deciding on the objects (and their meanings) that yard owners have to figure out for themselves. Then the quirky curb appeal revolution can begin.