bellagio
mark fuller
wet design

The story behind the most-recognizable fountains in the world

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The story behind the most-recognizable fountains in the world

I visited Las Vegas for CES a couple of months ago. Few people enjoy playing in CES, but no one enjoys going to the city of sin for work. The loud noises coming from the slot machines, the men flicking cards at you with pictures of naked women and the general sense that everyone is drunk is enough to make anyone feel exhausted.

But there is one thing about Vegas I enjoy: the fountains. They are more than your basic columns of water coming out of a statue. They are water choreographed to music, complete with lights and themes and everything you expect from a $300 Broadway show. They combine highly technical engineering with beautiful artistry to turn ordinary water into something extraordinary.

We all recognize the iconic pillars of water that define the entrance to the Bellagio Hotel, the Volcano at the entrance to the Mirage and the Splash show at the Riviera Hotel. But few know the story behind these fountains — the people who envisioned them, designed them and ultimately built them.

This is the story of Mark Fuller and the team he put together at WET, a firm responsible for the design and manufacture of some of the most recognizable and spectacular fountains in the world.

WET has built a total of 242 fountains in 20 countries, including the Bellagio Fountains, the Dubai Fountains, a number of fountains at CityCenter in Las Vegas, the fountain at Columbus Circle in NYC and many more.

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Fuller grew up in Utah in a family that had very little. Instead of playing with toys, Fuller had to make do with what they had lying around the house.

As a young teenager, he taught himself how to develop his own film photos. However, the family didn’t have a photo enlarger. He spent hours meticulously experimenting with an old film projector and pieces of tissue paper he’d stolen from his mother’s gift wrapping supplies to figure out the right exposure on his own hacked-together photo enlarger.

Fuller’s curiosity never subsided. He went to the University of Utah to get a degree in civil engineering.

20130110_MarkFuller_0194-Edit4_FX2“When you turn the clock back 100 or so years, all engineering was civil,” said Fuller. “Now we have mechanical, electrical, structural… I chose civil because it’s the broadest and gives you a smattering of all the other types of engineering.”

But Fuller pushed himself beyond the basic CE degree to enroll in an honors program that included a strong liberal arts curriculum. No one in engineering had ever gone through the program.

He then went on to a masters program at Stanford that allowed him to dive even deeper into the fine arts, taking a number of product design courses that, in his words, “helped [him] to grow a deep appreciation of form.”

In the summers during his time at Stanford, he applied to be a part of a trade tech program (what he calls a blue-collar school) where he helped build the Alaskan pipeline.

In short, Fuller’s academic career gave him such a broad understanding of both art and math that he could do almost anything he wanted with his skills.

Which brings us to WET, a vertically integrated design and manufacturing studio that builds the world’s most incredible fountains.

Fuller has always been fascinated by water.

“My grandfather once gave me an old washing machine and I thought, ‘what the heck can I do with this?'” said Fuller. “I ended up building underwater tunnels for the fish to swim through in the fish pond outside using the remnants of the washing machine.”

Fuller also developed a large-scale laminar flow water fountain as part of his undergrad time at the University of Utah, a fountain that still stands today. That technology is central to many of the designs created at WET.

sh_048_kahn_002.tifIn 1983, Fuller founded WET and started building a team. At the onset, they just wanted to be the designers behind what are now some of the world’s most-visited landmarks.

“We found that it was difficult to get manufacturers to build very specific parts in small quantities,” said Fuller, describing how WET transformed from a fountain design firm to a vertically integrated company. WET not only designs these fountains, in conjunction with world-famous choreographers like Kenny Ortega, but actually designs and manufactures all the parts needed to build the fountains.

“It gave us way more creative time,” said Fuller. “Instead of having half of our project time taken up by manufacturing, we’re able to innovate and iterate on various parts up until the last minute, since everything is developed in-house.”

Of course, these parts include basic sprinkler valves and pipes. But they also go far beyond what you might imagine a fountain company would develop — underwater LED lights, underwater robots and more.

WET’s smallest projects cost a minimum of $1 million, and go all the way up to $200 million, as was the case with the Dubai Fountain, one of the world’s most-trafficked landmarks of all time.

WET is currently home to 293 employees from all types of backgrounds, including design, choreography, engineering and everything in between. The company has its own courses so that employees can learn various trades, called Wet You, offering up to 120 different courses each year.

You can learn more about WET here.