Lock stock: the making of Karl Zahn and The Nanz Company’s Hotel Wallpaper* keys

Room keys are reimagined for Hotel Wallpaper* as a herd of convivial animals, cast in brass, in an exploration of zoomorphic tropes.
(Image credit: Carl Kleiner)

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)

Its look like a poster

(Image credit: press)

See more from Handmade here and check in to Hotel Wallpaper*…

Designer sitting in right side of the picture

New York-based designer Karl Zahn and The Nanz Company have collaborated on the creation of our ideal Hotel Wallpaper* keys. Left: a gazelle, amid metal trimmings, before its horn is cut to form a key. Right: Karl Zahn at The Nanz Company’s factory.

(Image credit: Jason Koxvold)

The Nanz Company’s Long Island factory

Zahn envisioned his designs being held by the hotel’s front desk, and handed to guests only should their own keys be misplaced. Pictured left: work proceeds at The Nanz Company’s Long Island factory. Right: workers in the shell-casting foundry pour the 2,100-degree molten bronze used to form the keys.

(Image credit: Jason Koxvold)

waterjet technology and a hydraulic 20-ton press

‘The project employed waterjet technology and a hydraulic 20-ton press,’ explains The Nanz Company’s Carl Sorenson. 

(Image credit: Jason Koxvold)


For more information, visit Karl Zahn’s website and The Nanz Company’s website

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.