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A modern take on the old Spanish fan

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By Dale Fuchs International Herald Tribune - Published: August 21, 2006

MADRID In its heyday, the folding fan was Spain's must-have accessory - the early 19th-century equivalent of a lithe designer bag, flirty sandal and well-poised Martini combined. More than a fashion statement, it was a courtship tool women used to signal their romantic interests, the right tap or flutter meaning anything from "come hither" to "don't waste your time."

Today those lacy floral numbers that smoothed the way for secret lovers are mostly the stuff of souvenir shops. Even the subdued versions in stark lacquered wood and solid colors are more likely to turn up at an outing for elderly people in sweltering Seville than at a Madrid cocktail party.

But a small group of artisans is trying to give the old-fashioned fan, or abanico, another shot at the tanned and slender wrists of a style-conscious crowd. In workshops throughout Andalusia, home to folkloric heroines like Georges Bizet's Gypsy cigar-roller Carmen, they are breaking ranks with their centuries-old guild, designing fans with asymmetrical shapes, whimsical ribbing and abstract patterns selling for between 150, or about 190, and 1,000 a piece.

>Their methods are similar to those used more than 200 years ago in the Romantic Age, when writers traveled through southern Spain and waxed poetic about the dark-eyed women with their ever-flapping fans and courtship code, already passe among the masses elsewhere in Europe. The modern-day craftsmen carve, pierce and sand the wooden ribs and handpaint the fabric or paper leaves that join them. But in doing so, they observe an unspoken rule: No flamenco dancers, dainty roses or misty-eyed pastoral scenes allowed.

"I try to stay away from flowers or use them as little as possible because that's all you would ever see," said Leticia Lopez Salazar, a 66 year old painter who has sold 1,500 vanguard takes on the traditional fan from her home in Seville since 2000.

"Every art has to modernize," she said. "The same way modern painters broke with classical schools and started Impressionism and Fauvism, I'm trying to break away from the classic fans."

Lopez Salazar's fans certainly do not resemble the flighty, gilded creatures that show up on postcards or in museum exhibits. In fact, they would look more at home in one of the country's many boutique hotels than on a stage set for "Carmen" or "Don Juan." One is shaped like a rectangle and pierced by triangles of cotton fabric. Another recalls a sunset in which the sticks are the rays and the fabric, or "leaf," is floating clouds. Many have irregular borders like torn paper or outlined forms suggesting stained glass, as in a painting by Gaugin or Van Gogh.

But these are not little canvases. Like any folding fan, all of Lopez Salazar's works produce a breeze when they open and close.

And that is the first commandment preached at the Cadiz School of Applied Arts and Artistic Trades, the only arts school in the country that offers a degree in fan making. Since 1990, it has trained about 500 craftsmen, or abaniqueros, like Lopez Salazar to view their grandmothers' accessory in new ways. The school encourages its students to "break the logic of the semi circle," as Professor Manuel Fernandez Cubero puts it, as long as they don't forget the fan's original cooling function. He compares the challenge to that of an architect who designs a sculpture like building or a futuristic couch.

"You have that limitation, that handicap, but it also an attraction for an artist," he said. "You have to create new forms, new spaces within the boundaries. In the end, a fan still has to move the air."

The Cadiz school so far has spawned four small workshops and about 20 home businesses selling unconventional abanicos. They do not hope to return fans to their former glory in an air conditioned age when women no longer need to mask their amorous intentions but could use a free hand to grip a cellphone. They are striving, however, to extricate the hand fan from collectors' shelves and place it in the dressing room once again as an ordinary accessory, like a pocketbook or belt.

"We'd like young women to use them and not associate them with the traditional fan their grandmother would take to Mass," Fernandez Cubero said. "We want the fan to still say 'Spain' but not the stereotypical Spain of bullfights and gypsies, but the Spain of modern design."

Fernandez Cubero has himself created hundreds of minimalist fans with price tags of up to 1,000. Many employ clean, geometric lines and harmonious tones "to match any outfit." His wife, Maria Teresa Alonso, who has 20 of them, is his advertising department, and his best customers are brides or socialites who want something edgy to match the dress for their next function. Other makers of haute couture fans sell to female politicians who are eager to own an updated Spanish icon, or to impress a foreign visitor.

A few lopsided leaves and sharp angles are only small style adjustments in the revolving closet of fashion. They are a revolution, however, in Spain's traditional industry, which began at the turn of the 16th century when Spanish merchants sailed home with folding hand fans from Asia, ushering in three centuries of brises (no paper or fabric), cabriolets (lots of paper and fabric) and other forms throughout Europe.

The Spanish industry, however, was the only one on the Continent to survive to the 21st century, thanks to the heat, a conservative rural society and those Romantic Age legends who fueled tourism, according to historians at the Cadiz school. Today manufacturers in the Valencia region still churn out fans, relying mainly on the piecework of local guilds of abaniqueros, who carve, paint and fasten. A few have begun to import cheaper pieces from China.

The manufacturers feed a growing local demand for quaint wedding favors and corporate giveaways. But some Cadiz school artisans also buy these already-assembled models and distort them to their tastes, bringing down the price.

Their designs are unlikely to show up on a catwalk anytime soon. But contemporary styles do turn up in unexpected places, like the tradition steeped Casa de Diego, which has been selling fans since 1823 in Madrid's Puerta del Sol.

The store is stocked with ornate collectors' items, including a mother-of-pearl specimen covered with grape-vines selling for 6,000. The fourth generation owner and abaniquero, Arturo Llerandi, respects the conservative tastes of his best customers: Spanish aristocrats, foreign dignitaries and the wives of military officers. How experimental can you be when the Queen of Spain places an order?

But even here, between handpainted goddesses and orderly bouquets, a few uncontrolled splotches of color peak out from a back shelf. A fan of sleek black triangles seems to sneer at the surrounding riot of lace and lacquer.

In the back room, Llerandi keeps samples he designed himself over the last 50 years - the batik patterns, the comic-book heroes, Cubist figures and a landscape that, were it to appear in a non-collapsing format, might be termed Expressionist. He sympathizes with the artisans striving for even more radical breaks with historic pomp and folklore.

But will his shop ever become the showcase of hip, cocktail-party accessories that the Cadiz school envisions? Not likely.

"People like little flowers," he said with a sigh.

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