Daniel Chae is a founder of Formawerx, a design and engineering firm reimagining luxury automotive key pieces based in Los Angeles. © Daniel Chae for Smalltalk
“If the car has no meaning, the key ends up simply being a tool. The same for a wedding ring: if it’s not tied to a marriage, a ring is just a fashion statement.”
What is your background and how did your passion to cars begin?
(Daniel Chae, Founder of Formawerx) I grew up spending every day at my Dad’s garage. It was truly a second home. He had a gas station & repair facility in the heart of LA and having the opportunity to spend quality time examining the ins & outs of everything from exotics to commercial vehicles set the tone for my life. It was truly an intimate affair as a child. Getting to sit in the driver’s seat, imagining what it’s like to drive a Land Rover across the desert, or a Countach along the highway was an absolute gift, not only in enabling a wild imagination, but in fostering my dreams. Spending slow afternoons and long evenings, backdropped with the sound of my dad’s clattering keyboard and the technicians air tools let me absorb the designs of cars: the surfacing, the details, the interior quality, and even the mechanical complexities, or in some cases, the simplicities. Thinking back, I can almost hear the background banter of our mechanics praising the robustness of JDM components while groaning, ‘not again!’ as a Range Rover with failed air-suspension hobbled in. I adore these memories of my childhood. The nostalgia bubbling up as I think about the question beings me to a warm place and I’m genuinely happy to declare my passion for cars began with spending time with my family, helping out with the business, and most pivotal of all, using customer cars as my action figures.
“Formawerx was our playground where we could explore the realms of automotive and product design with unparalleled freedom.”
How did you start Formawerx?
(DC) We started as a team of working automotive designers coming together to represent a firm with top talent. This is how we operated for several years taking jobs for all major brands such as Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Honda, ect, and even many product brands such as Herman Miller, Nike, Atomic, Tag Heuer, ect. Formawerx started purely as a creative outlet where we could design beyond the constraints of our corporate occupations. It was our playground where we could explore the realms of automotive and product design with unparalleled freedom. It was an energizing experience, constantly challenging us to design distinct products for a multitude of clients — big and small.
“Unlock your treasure.”
and what is the mission?
(DC) Over time, our journey led us to discover our true calling: crafting functional works of art that celebrate automotive treasures. After years of building for others, the 2021 pandemic became an incubator for us to think for ourselves: to create designs we believe in, use, and truly value. Our vision can simply be distilled to our brand statement: Unlock your treasure. Though ‘unlock’ refers to our keypieces for now, we intend to create objects that celebrate and bring value to many types of ‘treasures,’ if you catch my drift.
“I wear my wedding ring, just like many others who value the loving relationship in their lives. The round piece of metal we wear is to symbolize a never-ending love. I see our keypieces like that.”
What is so special about working on keys?
(DC) They’re symbols. A physical manifestation of a love letter to the car. A poem you can hold. It all sounds really conceptual but it’s not. I wear my wedding ring, just like many others who value the loving relationship in their lives. The round piece of metal we wear is to symbolize a never-ending love. I see our keypieces like that. It’s naturally an object of utility that requires to be with you in order for you to ‘connect’ to your car. If the car has no meaning, the key ends up simply being a tool. The same for a ring: if it’s not tied to a marriage, a ring is just a fashion statement. However, if the car does hold personal value, regardless of form, whether it be sentimental, a childhood dream, a vehicle passed down in the family, an achievement, or simply your favorite toy, I do believe the key, an object you carry with you quite intimately, has the immense opportunity to be your reminder. A true talisman representing a car that is valuable to you for reasons only you know.
“When done well, a well-designed car and a meticulously designed keypiece evokes a sentiment of value, wonder, and appreciation in our community.”
How are designing a key different from designing a car per se?
(DC) It is the same and different in many ways. The same in the sense that pouring passion into the design process is clearly felt by the end user. When done well, a well-designed car and a meticulously designed keypiece evokes a sentiment of value, wonder, and appreciation in our community. Logistically, the process is very similar as well. Starting from an idea and placing it into its first form of reality, a simple sketch. Then generations of iterations paired with a series of incremental steps towards reality: 3D design, engineering, prototyping, testing, ect. The differences really lay within the minutia. Keypieces are in a different scale than cars. As such, details really matter. We sweat the small stuff only to run into manufacturing and material constraints. It’s no wonder that watch-making is such a spectacle and an industrial art form that has taken familia generations to perfect. Small-scale products require design thinking that blends the beautiful skill of massaging shapes into sculptures in combination with a tight understanding of material-science & properties. It’s a really interesting space where weight, balance, and tactility must also be heavily considered. I would say, long story short, designing keypieces differs in the sense that it requires much tighter focus and a plethora of prototyping to get right.
Why is physical key to the car so important for you when many automakers are trying to digitalised?
(DC) I don’t necessarily place the way I value the car key against what’s happening now. I guess from the perspective of business, looking at how automakers are transitioning to digital keys can be a development that presents itself as a threat, but I simply don’t see it that way. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Our keypieces are a symbolic representation of a treasured vehicle. After all, we don’t live, defecate, and eat in our cars. That is to say, we aren’t in them all the time (sans recreational vehicles of course). So for me, there is a perpetual need for an object that can accurately capture the way you feel about your cars, can represent them well, and travel with you wherever you are. For the time being, the key is a great vessel with necessary utility, and as such, designing FOBs for modern vehicles are obviously next on our list. But rest assured, we have plenty of ideas in the works that will ‘unlock your treasure’ in ways you would have never thought!
“Our designs need to be authentic in order to evoke emotion, precise to display quality, and functional to intermingle with the needs of life.”
Key represents so many aspects: authenticity, precision, functionality. What aspect do you value the most and why?
(DC) We value everything with equal, & utmost importance. One value cannot live without the other, not only in our keypieces but for everything we will produce moving forward. Our designs need to be authentic in order to evoke emotion, precise to display quality, and functional to intermingle with the needs of life. It’s the triple crown of good product design and absolutely much more effective to see these pillars living on the same plane rather than on the linear scale of priority.