By Luke Netzley
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor
Certain moments in this life force one to pause and stand firmly in place, rooted by the inescapable awe of their surroundings. It’s a moment when the viewer is no longer simply observing a work of art, but has stepped carefully inside and has become fully immersed in its beauty.
Pasadena native Phil Hettema stands at the helm of an experiential design firm that has been pushing the boundaries of such art for the last two decades. The Hettema Group has a diverse team of designers, architects and engineers whose mission is to turn imaginative ideas into one-of-a-kind attractions.
With a prolific eye for design and a successful background in experiential entertainment — including eight years at Disney and 14 years at Universal as the company’s senior vice president of attraction development worldwide — Hettema creates resonance in his work, whether it’s constructing the largest observation wheel in the world or an interactive WWII museum exhibit in New Orleans.
“We create stories you can touch,” Hettema described. “People have a real need for experiences. It’s part of our nature as human beings. Particularly now coming out of the pandemic, we’re all experiencing how hungry we were for connecting with each other and connecting with the world outside.”
Hettema was born in the same year that Disneyland opened its doors to the world, welcoming him in as a curious child fascinated by the imagination and design of the new technologies throughout the park. The annual trips to Disneyland with his family piqued his curiosity into the world of experiential design, which would eventually lead to the start of his career at the park years later.
During his time at Disney, Hettema worked as a designer on the same types of projects that had mesmerized him as a child. As the years passed, one road led to another and he found himself at Universal, where a client proposed he help build a recreational city in the kingdom of Jordan. With no company of his own, Hettema gathered close colleagues, and boarded a flight to the Middle East, where he worked with the king of Jordan and his staff on a design. After his overseas success, Hettema’s phone rang with new projects and THG was born.
The company has since built projects in areas like LA, Singapore, New York, Moscow and Seoul using the designing of dimensional experiences to create stories around the world.
“We want to find out what is unique and special about each particular project that we’re doing, what’s the context that it exists in, and how can we make that relevant to the people who are going to come visit it,” Hettema said.
One space, the observatory at the One World Trade Center in New York, stands as a powerful representation of how a structure can become much more than just an architectural marvel and can take on a story of its own.
“The task that the port authority gave us was to create an experience that wasn’t really about 9/11, but about the rebirth of that site and looking forward,” Hettema explained.
“We had to do that knowing that nobody would ever walk into that building and not have what happened that day in the back of their mind, so we had to find a way to contextualize that and put it on a much larger scale so people really understood that the 9/11 event was only one piece of the context of the World Trade Center and that it’s now been rebuilt bigger, and hopefully better, than ever.”
This reimagination of created spaces is at the core of THG’s work. No one project is ever the same as another, but there is one constant that spans across all spaces: captivation.
“The secret sauce of what we do in creating experiences is in both the experiences themselves and the opportunity that they give people to interact with each other,” he said.
Hettema’s desire for each project is to create a space that fosters emotional connections and fond memories that people can look back on long after they’ve left. It’s a creative process that begins on the drawing board, then continues onto the building site.
“At the beginning of the process there are no bad ideas,” Hettema detailed. “We build on those ideas until we find just the perfect solution. That’s the heart and soul of creative ideation, to be able to generate a rich enough tapestry of ideas to select from and trust that the right ideas will emerge.”
Once the path forward has been set, the group’s creativity must be directed toward the execution. This can be an equally strenuous exercise as THG is usually conducting work that has never been done before, testing the limits of modern architectural design.
Its work as a worldwide firm has been made even more difficult by the onset of the global pandemic, forcing the group to design and actively work on their newly opened space in Macau by using cameras on the building site and electronic controls at home. Nevertheless, the group’s determination for excellence shined through and the project was completed.
While business is booming, Hettema is looking ahead, where he sees the company stretching into realms rarely inhabited by experiential design before, such as the retail, dining, medical and sports spectator worlds.
“Experience is something that’s now a part of all of our lives culturally and economically. Our market is expanding, and the only limit on it is how creative we can be.”