The perfect union of innovative design and antimicrobial copper

New situations require new solutions. Inspired by COVID-19, sculptor Erwin Laiho designed Space Key – an antimicrobial copper key that makes it possible to open doors and press buttons without touching them with your hands.

Edwin Laiho Space Key

“Fail fast, succeed sooner,” reads Erwin Laiho’s email signature. He explains that it is a startup mindset – the sooner you fail, the quicker you can reach the desired end result.

“You shouldn’t sit on your ideas; you should put them to the test. In my work, I’ve emphasized to my students that if their plan relies on a particular mechanism, they should also make sure that it works. Testing ideas in practice is a massive prerequisite for the end product corresponding to their imagination,” Laiho says.

The sculptor, who works as a laboratory technician at Aalto University Design Factory, follows his own teachings in his own life. When he came up with the idea for a piece of personal protective equipment that would help users avoid touching dirty surfaces, he quickly set to work. Dozens of prototypes were required before the design and properties came together just right in prototype number 44.

“I tested many designs, and the changes I made were pretty small. You can sense them even if you can’t see them. I wanted the key to be good in every way. In my art, I’ve long been using Apple devices – emptying out the cases and using the aluminum for various objects – and you can see on the inside that everything has been carefully and meticulously thought out. Although a normal user can’t see inside the product, I firmly want to believe that it affects what the product feels like.”

Let’s not avoid microbes – let’s destroy them

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aalto University asked its employees to make use of their knowhow to prevent the spread of the virus. Laiho got the idea for Space Key from the Wuhan Hook lighter, which has an Allen key taped to its side. It was developed in Wuhan, the initial outbreak point of the pandemic.

“The Wuhan Hook key is sanitized with the lighter after use. The original idea was to not avoid germs but destroy them. At first I thought that I could design a better piece of metal that could be taped to the side of a lighter, but then I thought of antimicrobial copper, which doesn’t require cleaning.”

The Space Key touch guard would have come in handy even without COVID-19, considering we are living in a world permeated by microbes. Some bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause diseases can live on surfaces for days or even months. Elevator buttons, ATMs and toilet seats – they can all be handled in a hygienic manner with Space Key. After use, Space Key is slipped back inside its copper case, which isolates the microbes and prevents their spread. On copper surfaces, viruses and microbes are fully destroyed within a time that varies from minutes to a few hours.

The shape is influenced by Costa Rican nature

Laiho, who grew up in Finland, studied sculpting at the University of Florida. He attended high school at the United World College of Costa Rica. The shape of Space Key is influenced by Costa Rican nature.

“Costa Rican nature has given me a much wider imagination than Finnish nature, and the inspiration I take from nature may also take a wide variety of forms. I thought about how I could apply it to Space Key’s shape. I wanted to make it graceful, with uniform lines, even though it has the strict dimensions required for door handles and locks.”

Laiho is impressed how the pandemic has pushed many companies to focus their resources in new ways and invest in innovations. Art may also take new shapes as the world changes.

“The pandemic has also forced creative people to think about their priorities. My generation’s art sometimes resorts to cynicism and irony – instead of taking things seriously, it plays with them. I hope the pandemic will make people understand that art is not vain – it can also involve concrete inventions.”

Space Key touch guards are available for purchase from Laiho’s company at and Aalto University Shop at

Space Key is made of 99.95 percent (Cu-OF) copper in Finland. The antimicrobial key disinfects itself.

TEXT: Sari Lommerse, PHOTOS: Olli Urpela