The hotel key card may be a signifier of modern advancement and convenience, but we can’t help longing for the old-world charm that some grand European hotels still uphold: a good old-fashioned key. This was the starting point behind our ideal room key – a design opportunity waiting to be seized.

New York-based designer Karl Zahn was our collaborator of choice, known for the imaginative and characterful spin he brings to both functional and decorative objects. Zahn regularly uses natural materials and zoomorphic tropes. A collection of beech storage boxes he designed for Areaware in 2012 took the form of a menagerie of animals and continues to delight. 

‘One of the things I noticed after hearing the responses of people who use the boxes is that the product has become more than just a sculpture or a box. Simply by making it into the shape of an animal, and putting eyes and legs on a piece, you start to build a relationship with the user,’ reflects Zahn.

He instantly gravitated to the idea of creating naïve animal shapes for our room keys. ‘In the case of a hotel key, something that someone would need to take care of and not lose, this relationship comes in handy.’

He envisions his designs being held by the hotel’s front desk, and handed to guests only should their own keys be misplaced. ‘When you’ve locked yourself out and you’re only wearing a towel, the hotel desk key is there to save you. But it only works if you return the key for the next person.’ He adds, ‘Part of making people relate to something is that you run the risk of a person taking it. I wanted to address the need for group cooperation to maintain the desk key collection – a way that wasn’t a financial hit or a long anchor chain – thus the use of the herd [idea]. Hopefully that would be enough of a deterrent to would-be thieves. You’d be stealing a mother or father or child away from its family....’

Animal choices were swiftly whittled down to two forms, a gazelle and an alligator, which were relatively straightforward to realise, and articulated a circle of life in the African wild. ‘We chose [them] because they were natural enemies and [envisioned them displayed] in a prey/predator attack scene,’ says Carl Sorenson, co-founder of hardware manufacturer The Nanz Company, which undertook the production of the keys.

Zahn adds, ‘The jagged edge of key teeth lent itself to [the gazelle’s] serrated horn and the alligator teeth.’ Keen to rely on the traditional methods of making simple, sheet-metal keys, Zahn worked with Nanz to fine-tune production. The gazelles have two halves, so they are able to stand, while the alligator features a corrugated back. With the full force of Nanz’s 50,000 sq ft factory in Long Island City, New York, behind the project, any challenges were overcome. ‘We created manufacturing drawings, designed the tooling, fabricated the parts, finished and assembled the animals in less than two weeks,’ says Sorenson. ‘The project employed waterjet technology and a hydraulic 20-ton press.’

Although the examples in this issue demonstrate creative licence for the purposes of the Handmade exhibition (‘We oversized them for effect,’ says Sorenson), the keys are fully functional. ‘They [just] need to be cut for a specific lock,’ says Zahn. 

As originally featured in the August 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*209)

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