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The Fan Club

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 Fanimation  Chuck Matthews  Dave Ellis

Tom Frampton, Founder Fanimation                         Chuck Matthews, Founder Matthews Fan Company     Dave Ellis, The Modern Fan Co.

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.  T

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.


Ron Rezek

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.

Irene Fan by Matthews Fan Co.

Irene Fan by Matthews Fan Co.

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.

Raffles Singapore

Punkah Fan at Raffles Singapore                                                                     WWII British Indian Army

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.

Kaye fan in textured bronze.      Kaye Fan in Brushed Nickel Finish Made by Matthews Fan Company

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.


Torsion fan motor    Torsion | 52"

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.