For over five centuries, the fan has been an iconic part of Spanish culture, and it is Valencia that sits at the heart of this unique industry. For generations, families of artisans and artists have come together to make the city one of the main fan manufacturing hubs in the world. While in today’s context, the handheld fan is often reserved for keeping us cool on those hotter days, this iconic object actually has a much longer and storied history. 

As part of their Design the Air exhibition, World Design Capital Valencia 2022 is delving into this history by exploring the fan through the lens of both traditional and modern shapes, textures and technologies. Tracing the legacy of fan-making in Valencia from antiquity through to modernity, it becomes easy to understand why the practice remains such an integral part of the city’s cultural and design heritage. 

When developing the Design the Air exhibition, curator Vicent Martínez was looking “to promote an alliance of craftsmanship and design” that included the use of new technologies and materials. Within the framework of World Design Capital Valencia, Martínez wanted to contribute new proposals and ideas that are able to relocate iconic objects, such as the fan, within the international imagery in which the WDC 2022 programme is centred. 

Photos: ©Nerea Coll

Martínez, who worked in collaboration with local artisan Ángel Blay in the manufacture of the pieces, recognizes that “the fan is a traditional piece in Valencian object memory.” From those that attach the fabric to the structure by hand, to the artisan who specializes in the detailed filigree, to the painters who decorate the fabric, the design process fuses craftsmanship, art and functionality. 

Many fan makers, including the most emblematic house of Spanish fans, the Abanicos Carbonell, continue to observe traditional manufacturing processes to ensure the authenticity of their products. To this day, many of Valencia’s fans remain hand-painted and handcrafted, with the goal of emphasizing the Spanish design heritage. 

Art direction: ©Juan Martínez Lahiguera

Design the Air acknowledges this history but also looks to explore the future of the fan making trade in Valencia and beyond. The exhibition brings together the contributions of 20 international artists and designers from different parts of the world (including from WDO Senator Luisa Bocchietto), each offering their own rendition of the iconic fan. The result is an impressive array of shapes, colours and textures that utilize both old and new technologies. The exhibition features traditional materials, such as nacre (the pearlescent inner layer from cultivated oyster shells) and natural woods, to more contemporary plywood board and digitally printed fabrics. 

By merging these two worlds of past and present, the exhibition is able to demonstrate how the union between design and legacy can actually favour the reinvention of even the most classical elements of a culture. And while the project does offer a few more modern interpretations of the fan, it also stands as a testament to an emerging generation of designers that are interested in preserving and promoting this important part of Valencia’s heritage.

Design the Air is on display at Valencia’s baroque palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas until 26 June 2022. 

To learn more about this project, please visit

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