Fans, by nature, are cool. Over time they have been in and out of style, but one function has remained constant: fans increase air movement across the skin, which in turn creates a cooling effect. Fans have also been a fashion statement. In Egyptian times the abanico, or hand fan, was originated by artisans using feathers and was seen as a status symbol. This same fan went on to have a vibrant career in Spanish Flamenco dancing. The most primitive of fans were invented in India around 500 BCE and consisted of Indian palmyra leaves going back and forth in a pendular motion, operated manually. The big leap in fan technology was in 1882 when Philip Diehl re-engineered an electric motor from a Singer sewing machine for use in a ceiling mounted fan. Now the air really started moving.
But then came the air conditioner. In the 1950's electric air conditioning, which reduces air temperature and relative humidity via refrigeration, took over. Fans slowly faded out of vogue. Years later, during the energy crisis, electricity got expensive. The bill came in the mail and the AC got turned off. Fans then became an energy-efficient solution to help cool a space and remain that way today.
Fans have always been in the cross-hairs of form and function. The four-bladed pull-chain fan was, and is, very effective, but technology and tastes evolve. The current generation of fan innovators have propelled fans to a new level of energy-efficiency, control, and style that could be classified as the Art of Air. These innovators are part of an elite fan club group that are responsible for that soft breeze we all get to feel. That zephyr that's quieter, gentler, balanced, and more calming than ever before. Where could we go next, if not asleep? We sat down with three innovators to find out how they got into the fan industry and what drives them in their quest for the perfect breeze.
Tom Frampton was in high school in 1974 when he went to work for Burton A. Burton, the founder of the Casablanca Fan Co. He went on to start his own fan company Fanimation, and was inspired by the early Punkah style fans from India, creating his own electrified version as one of his first designs.
Chuck Matthews went on a life-changing trip to Brazil in 1986. It was there, in a Sao Paolo restaurant, where a unique ceiling fan caught his eye. The Geraldo Barros inspired propeller fan changed his life as he began distributing the fan in the US. In 1992, he started designing his own fans focusing on metalwork and handmade qualities.
Dave Ellis benefitted from over two decades of exposure to the design process at Modern Fan Co. While he has remained true to there foundational pursuit of simplicity and refinement in its products, Ellis has helped to expand the aesthetic range of Modern Fan’s offering while broadening his role to include product design and development.
Who inspired you to start designing ceiling fans or get into the industry?
Tom Frampton: Well, it wasn’t intentional, as you will recall I went to work for Burton A Burton the summer of 1973 (49 years ago this month) I was just 17 and his only employee at the time. What started out as a summer job working for an entrepreneur, machinist and antique trader in short order became the Casablanca Fan Company. That experience whetted my appetite for the starting of my own company, and it was at Casablanca that I designed my first fan (the Punkah Fan 1977). In 1981, I began to consolidate Casablanca’s Special Products Department and by January 1984, was able to spin off that department and start Fanimation.
Chuck Matthews: I was inspired by our original ceiling fan, the Duplo Dinamico, we imported from Brazil. I came across the fan in a small café along the coast of Brazil, somewhere between Rio de Janiero, RJ and Maresias, SP, in 1986.
Dave Ellis: My landing in this industry was rather happenstance and was initially limited to sales and management roles. During those years, Ron Rezek (our founder) steered all product design for The Modern Fan Co. However, working closely with him, I gained invaluable experience and insight into the design and development process. He was incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge and perspective, and I credit Ron for facilitating and encouraging my transition into design.
Describe your creative process
TF: While I don’t design fans for production as I once did, when I did, I tended to design what I liked based on antique fans or some object or material that caught my eye. I would draw several versions in CAD to work out scale and function then hand it off to engineering for detailed drawings and prototyping.
CM: I am inspired by brutalist, industrial design – organic form and Mies Van der Rohe who popularized the saying “Less is more.” Beauty and economy exist in the reduction of design. Designs morph over time for me. I may let a prototype sit for a year in our showroom before I commit to it and even after committing, I am always making changes to our products. I am hoping to make products which endure both mechanically and esthetically.
DE: Needless to say, ceiling fans are on my mind more often than I’d like to admit. Initial ideas for a new concept might come from anywhere: nature, household objects, travel, etc. I will usually start with a basic sketch and possibly some rough modeling of defining characteristics. Most ideas don’t get past this stage, but those that do move on to a feasibility study, technical drawings and detailed renderings. Typically, there are several rounds of refinement, followed by prototyping and finally tooling and production. The decision to take a new design into production requires that it have some distinctive quality or attribute which expands our offering and which justifies inclusion in our assortment. The truth is that there is no shortage of ideas… it’s relatively easy to come up with something new or different. The critical task is to identify when a design is worthy of investment and determining whether it will enhance our brand strength.
How does your manufacturing differ from your competitors?
CM: We inspect at the factory, of course, but we also, in our facility, bench test all mechanical fans and in the very least, visually inspect all other models.
DE: The technical approach to manufactured parts and components is probably somewhat consistent for most brands… die casting, stamping, injection molding, glass blowing, etc. However, The Modern Fan Co. is somewhat of a boutique brand. Our production runs are typically smaller and are tightly monitored with respect to quality at each stage all the way through final assembly. Furthermore, we produce most of our fans for greater flexibility in finish and option configuration. Where some manufacturers might offer three or four versions of a given model, we option out the various combinations of finish, blade span, blade color, lighting and control options. The Torsion, for example, is available in over 400 possible variations.
Which ceiling fan has been your greatest achievement and what was the inspiration behind the design?
TF: Because it was my first, I would say the Punkah Fan. One weekend in 1977, I had just happened to watch the movie ‘King of the Kyber Rifles’, a movie about the British Indian army regiment the ‘Kyber Rifles’ set in colonial India during WW1. The British army headquarters had several punkah fans manually operated by the punkah wallahs (servants). Monday morning, I started to work on my version and by the end of the week had a working model. The image below is the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, one of the most noteworthy installations, 27 blades in all.
CM: The Kaye wall fan, also used as a ceiling fan, the success of which inspired my competition to enter into the wall fan category. The fan is named after a dear friend of mine from high school.
DE: The Torsion has certainly been my most successful design and remains my personal favorite. I had been evaluating and modeling different methods for blade attachment and while considering some rather complex solutions, I kind of stumbled onto a “split” blade attachment that became the basis for the Torsion. Ultimately, like many good designs, the solution was arrived at through an exercise in “simplification". Attention to various details followed, but the primary elements came about in a matter of minutes… an “aha” moment so-to-speak.
Which fan project have you worked on are you most proud of?
TF: The Palisade put Fanimation on the map and it was quickly followed by the Islander. They were great commercial successes and continue to sell some 30 years later. While it didn’t achieve great commercial success the Enigma a one-bladed fan stands out for me.
CM: Projects have been many and each is an achievement. It is always a complement to me to see our fans in public spaces.
Energy efficiency is a big part of a ceiling fans usefulness, is that a big inspiration for you?
TF: The possibilities as far as design and technology really are endless. Fanimation will continue to strive to be the leaders in both design and functionality.
CM: It is, of course, but efficiency is also a DOE (Department Of Energy) requirement. There are ways to produce more CFM’s, but the fan still needs to be attractive to sell. It’s always form versus function.
DE: I view the principle value of the ceiling fan as functional (in providing comfort) and decorative (in bringing visual interest into an environment). The fact that ceiling fans also provide environmental and economic gains by virtue of reduced energy use is an added benefit that we celebrate and embrace. It absolutely feels good to know that our products have a positive impact on the overall landscape of energy consumption.
What has been the greatest challenge in the fan industry in the past/future?
TF: It has been an ever-changing landscape since 1973. In the beginning since ‘we’ were creating a fan company from the ground up the challenges were many. ‘We’ had to find reliable vendors, ‘we’ had to learn how to make a quality fan and at the same time create the means of distribution. In the beginning lighting showrooms didn’t want to carry fans and they had to be convinced otherwise. Of course, these days it is staying ahead of the supply chain issues.
CM: Past: recession of 2007. Future: Geez, the recession of 2023?
Who would you say the father/founder/inventor of the ceiling fan was?
TF: Philip Diehl, a contemporary of Thomas Edison is credited with being the inventor of the first electric ceiling fan (belt driven fans came long before that). In 1886, Diehl used a motor he had developed for Singer sewing machines.
CM: I believe that a variant of the ceiling fan, the Indian punkah, dates to circa 600 BC. A horizontal pole with weighted fabric pulled across a room by a rope caused a refreshing draft for those fortunate enough to not be the ones tasked with pulling said ropes.
DE: Wikipedia tells us that Philip Diehl was the inventor of the ceiling fan, but there have been numerous developments and improvements since his time and many contributors to the evolution of the category. As a producer of “modern ceiling fans”, we credit our own Ron Rezek with having first adapted the ceiling fan from antique reproduction to something more along the lines of what is offered today. His Stratos fan (predecessor to our Ball fan) was designed in the mid-1980’s and is widely considered the first modern ceiling fan. Among its innovations was the introduction of a single-piece rotor as an alternative to the individual "blade irons” commonly used before. He was also the first to incorporate a simple, continuous geometry into the housing (with his integrated rotor design), such that the motor was completely obscured from view and only the intended, spherical form was presented.
What do you think the coolest fan of all time is and why?
TF: As a fan collector I am going to go with one of my favorites. This is the Marelli ‘Ercole’, an Italian desk fan designed around the atlas figure from a Wild and Wessel oil lamp. The oil lamp was first shown in Paris in 1867. The fan is very early 1900’s. I have a great example in the Antique Fan Museum located at our headquarters in Zionsville, Indiana.
CM: There are many antique fans which I admire, along with many of our own designs, but probably Cirrus by Modern and Flyte by Minka. I like the thoughtful simplicity of these designs.
DE: Due to is incredible duration as the pre-eminent ceiling fan on the market, the Hunter “Original” might be the GOAT [greatest of all time]. As for the “coolest fan of all time", that’s more a matter of personal preference and there are many great designs. I don’t know that I could choose just one.
What are the most common install mistakes you notice when you see fans in the wild (restaurants, homes, hotels, etc)?
TF: The number 1 installation mistake is not reading the instructions. When selecting a fan, it is important to first get the correct rating for the location i.e., a dry, damp or wet rated fan. After that select your preferred style, blade diameter & airflow characteristics, example some fans are high speed (for the wind-chill effect) with lower airflow volume while others are lower speed with higher air flow volume and of course there are various combinations of both.
CM: Fans missing decorative elements. Blades installed upside down. Wobbling fans. Or just unattractive, plain builder product installed in well-designed commercial spaces.
DE: People sometimes have a tendency to try and tuck fans up as close to the ceiling as possible… “out of site”. Obviously, on a low ceiling, it is necessary to have a compact fan (flush mount or with a short down rod) and visually, this is a suitable solution. However, on higher ceilings, a compact fan reduces the airflow potential by limiting the space for return of air above the blades. In addition, aesthetically speaking, we find that a quality design can visually enhance a space and appears more natural when suspended some distance away from the ceiling rather than positioned right up against it.
What's next for ceiling fans, how do you imagine them operating in the next 20 years?
CM: Probably much the same way, unless Tesla designs a wireless motor. An attractive, design-modest, energy efficient DC ceiling fan never needs to be turned off. It can be left on and forgotten most of the year and it will do its job, making more effective HVAC.
DE: I foresee an ongoing transition to DC motors due to the associated efficiency gains. This transition goes hand-in-hand with technology integrations as the “connected” home becomes more the norm.
Thank you for your innovation and commitment to the Art of Air. The form and function of ceiling fans have stood the test of time and it's clear that their role in design will be felt for years to come.
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