Bill Bensley, an Adventurous Designer with an Eye For the Whimsical
Well-heeled travellers with a taste for the refined whimsical have most likely come across the work of Bill Bensley, the go-to designer for truly unique hotel designs. With a portfolio spanning from luxury groups like Four Seasons to independent ventures like Shinta Mani Wild – which begins with a zipline through the forest – Bensley's work never fails to offer one-of-a-kind memories for the discerning jetsetter. Away from the studio, however, Bensley retreats to the simpler things in life – in the comfort of his incredible home in Bangkok, where he lives with his husband Jirachai Renthong and their six Jack Russells. Bensley is not only a passionate admirer of gardening but also devotes much of his time to antiques and artworks – many of which play a great inspiration to his hotel works. We speak with Bensley on his proudest projects, his top recommendations for where to eat, drink and stay around Asia and how he's an adventurous soul at heart.
Images: Shinta Mani Wild (swipe)
You've designed over 200 hotels across the world – an incredible portfolio to to say the least. What were your most memorable experiences or proudest projects if you had to pick three?
Shinta Mani Wild as being a steward and protector of one of the last great wildernesses in Asia is an honour. It is all I would want in a hotel experience and is in many ways the culmination of all our work at BENSLEY over the past 30 years. The hardest project I have ever done, but most definitely the one which is closest to my heart.
My first Four Seasons in Langkawi in Malaysia. It was here that we spread our wings beyond landscaping and were recognised in our skill for Interior Design – as someone who did not study interiors, this was a huge compliment, especially from a giant like Four Seasons.
Photos: JW Marriott Phu Quoc
JW Marriott Phu Quoc (Vietnam) – also known as the Lamark University in Phu Quoc, as it was the first hotel where I embraced a storyline for every last bit of the design – I was writing an actual storyline to guide us in the DNA of the design. At first, when I presented the idea of bringing an abandoned university back to life, the term Disney was tossed around and the Marriott team were not convinced. But when the mock-up room was finished and they realised the refinement of the design and the extent to which we went in terms of sourcing antiques and objects which would make the story believable... they were fully on board!
What are your favourite happy places in Bali and Bangkok? Top restaurants in Bali? And Bangkok?
My happy place in Bangkok is definitely the red building next to Chatuchak Market, which is filled to the brim with glorious junk, vintage art and period furniture.
In Bangkok, I always order lunch from La Cocina (now closed) as they have a great plant-based menu, and also love EAT ME, where the sticky date pudding is not to be missed. However, at home we have two wonderful Thai chefs... so there is no need to venture out.
In Bali, I love Kerobokan near Kuta in the south of Bali, which has some 20 junkyards that I visit regularly to find treasures that we use in our projects. I love to shop... we had to build a dedicated warehouse at my design studio just to house my shopping.
Naughty Nuri's in Ubud is where we always go for a lunch of BBQ pork ribs and decent Mexican food too.
How did you get into the architecture and interior design scene? I started out as a landscape designer first and foremost, but have always been one for doing more than the client asks for. Back in 1995, the Four Seasons Langkawi was on our gardening boards and my classmate become business partner Lek Bunnag was the architect. I just “assumed” that we were also the interior designers! Sans contract we designed them, and the owners fell in love... we were in. My best friend, Jeff Wilkes of the famous interior design company based in Kuala Lumpur, DesignWilkes, was instrumental in finishing the project and I thank him for teaching me what I know today about interiors. The same can be said for Lek – the madman who taught me the meaning of architecture. By 2000, we were designing the Four Seasons Koh Samui “from soup to nuts” –architecture + interiors + landscape. If you don’t ask, it may not happen... I asked and it happened.
When did you first visit Asia (and where) and how did this influence your work? I left for Asia – via Europe – the day after my graduation. During my Harvard days, I met the talented Lek Bunnag, now a national treasure of Thailand. On our graduation day in 1984, I asked him where he would go next. His answer was Singapore which sounded wonderfully exotic. I asked if I could go too, and just on a lark, I did, the very next day! I spent the summer backpacking across Europe, then hitch-hiking around Malaysia, sketching people in exchange for meals. A few months later I landed on Lek’s doorstep in Singapore, penniless. The next day I got a landscaping job at an American firm. A week later I was on a plane to Bali to design a pool and the gardens for the Bali Hyatt: I was smitten.
Almost 40 years later I remain smitten as Southeast Asia is sublime. I learned everything I could, making the languages of SouthEast Asia – spoken or architectural – my own, and reading everything I could get my hands on. This never stops! This region is an El Dorado filled with incredible craftspeople, artists, architects, designers – all of whom I learn so very much from them. At the start of BENSLEY, we worked from an old parking garage pulling together immense hand-painted drawings. We have always done things differently which wins us jobs over buttoned-up studios with all their ducks in a row.
What are some inspirational gardens you've seen around the world? As a landscape architect first and foremost I look for beautiful gardens everywhere I travel. Here are a handful that I love: – Huka Lodge, Lake Taupo, New Zealand – Geoffrey Bawa House, Sri Lanka – May Valley, Praslin, Seychelles – Keukenhof Garden of Europe, Lisse, Netherlands – Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa – Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka – Royal Alcazar Of Seville, Seville, Spain – Katsura Imperial Villa Gardens, Kyoto, Japan – Roberto Burle Marx Gardens, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Baan Botanica (swipe)
You're a lover of all things nature and even took up hobbies in fishing and gardening. How has this influenced your home and its design? Gardening has always been something I love. As a teenager, I mowed the lawn for neighbours and tended their gardens, and my home nowadays is a small black and white house with a series of gardens all around it. We named our home and garden Baan Botanica – Baan meaning home or house in Thai – in tribute to the fifteen hundred plus species of plants growing in the gardens. My husband Jirachai is a horticulturist so the garden and house are our ever-changing playground, often disorienting even friends who visit weekly as it is an ever-evolving wonderland! Top 5 favourite hotels in the world? It's too hard to pick - I love all my children equally! So here are two lists:
Who are your design influences? Frank Lloyd Wright is a massive design influence as he could design everything from a teaspoon to major urban planning. This is something we strive for at BENSLEY, offering Architecture, Interior Design, Landscaping, Graphic Design – we go so far as to create uniforms and tableware! I am also very inspired by Kelly Wearstler and Kit Kemp too.
You have a unique eye for the whimsical. Where do you find these fantastical themes and inspirations? Inspiration comes from everywhere – and more often than not, from where one would most least expect it! Inspiration is all around me, in the books I read, shows I watch, people I meet, the unusual places or curious characters I encounter. The oddest things can become the key of a project! For anything we do however, the site is the first inspiration – as a landscape architect I respect what mother nature created and try simply to do as little harm as possible!