Ceiling fans used to be a designer's nightmare, ranking right up there with wide-screen televisions. Big and ugly.

When it came to style, there were few choices. You could get faux Victorian or something plain and unadorned.

"The first thing we used to do when we walked into a room was, 'OK, the ceiling fan has to go.' It was always one of the things we had to contend with. They were just so God-awful ugly," says Lehigh Valley native Eric Schmidt of Eric J. Schmidt Interiors in New York and the Lehigh Valley.

Fast forward to today. An explosion in ceiling fan design has made these fixtures exciting elements in home decor that combine form and function in novel ways. Sleek, modern designs in natural woods and brushed nickel are compelling. Retro looks from the 1930s, tropical palm fronds and rustic Old World European styles have been coming on strong.

"Now we have options. I think some manufacturers are making some of the most stunning fixtures. You can walk in and they look like really great modern airplane propellers from the 1930s," Schmidt says.

For inside and out, too

The $2 billion ceiling fan industry has grown 15 percent a year for the past five years, according to Larry Lauck, spokesman for the American Lighting Association, a trade group that includes ceiling fan manufacturers.

No longer limiting ceiling fans to the family room or a bedroom, homeowners are installing them in nearly every room of the house. Ceiling fans for outdoor living spaces, such as porches, patios and gazebos, are becoming popular. (Make sure your fan is rated UL wet, or UL damp if it will be used where there is moisture.)

Jim Vulcano, showroom coordinator at Stokes Lighting Center in Easton, extols the new variety available in fans. "You can get a ceiling fan to match any look in your house, any type of furniture and in any color," he says.

You also can find fans to match your style -- from shabby chic living rooms, to Arts and Crafts family rooms, or contemporary or retro bedrooms.

The Casablanca Fan Co., the leading manufacturer of high-end ceiling fans, made one of the first decorative fans on the market 20 years ago, still available and called the 19th Century. But this fan's glossy brass finish is not as popular today.

Instead, the trend is toward warm, earth-toned, textured finishes, as well as furniture-grade wood blades with hand-carved details and rich patinas.

The shift away from the basic "pancake" design began when ceiling fans started to be sold in lighting showrooms, says John Pearson, vice president of marketing at Casablanca Fan Co.

"[Ceiling fans] evolved to follow the same home decor and technology trends as light fixtures. They are now decorative accessories as well as functional devices," Pearson explains.

Just-for-fun extras

Even ceiling fan pull chains, normally standard metal beads, are getting a decorative touch at Westinghouse Lighting Corp., a leading manufacturer of lighting products that recently entered the ceiling fan market. Some of the more whimsical pull chains depict the Eiffel Tower, an abstract Arts and Crafts motif, musical notes, monkeys and parrots.

A new line, called Details, includes colorful beads and spiraling glass and is intended to coordinate with current interior design themes, says Rachel Gannon, Westinghouse's associate product manager for decorative electrical accessories.

"The newest Westinghouse ceiling fans feature contemporary, edgy designs as well as upscale styles with colorful glass and uplight and downlight fixtures," says Barbara Wright, Westinghouse's ceiling fan product manager.

Look for the star