Words by Mika Apichatsakol
Photos by Chaiwat Kangsamrith
March Issue, 2023
The design mastermind behind some of Asia’s most iconic hotels and resorts, including Capella Ubud, Rosewood Luang Prabang, Bangkok’s The Siam Hotel, and the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Bill Bensley has made himself a highly sought-after and admired name in the world of hospitality and design over the last 30 years. Gastronomer Lifestyle talks to the American architect about his design ethos, storytelling, and not being confined in boxes.
We arrive at the famous Bangkok residence of Bill Bensley in the morning, catching him and his husband Jirachai just outside walking their five Jack Russell terriers. Entering into the award-winning hotel designer’s home for the first time, it is immediately clear that we would not be able to appreciate every little detail of the place on our tight schedule. The residence, known by the name Baan Botanica, is a labyrinth of plants, antique entryways, and impeccably- placed eclectic furniture. It’s The Secret Garden times ten; the green lung of the busy Udom Suk suburb.
We eventually settle in a beautiful Bougainvillea-covered pavilion on a central lawn area to have our chat with Bill. The famed architect, who first set up his design studio in Bangkok in 1989, tells us he’s been preoccupied with painting lately, preparing for his “first real serious art show” at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok. The collection of paintings is about Bill’s rather random but endearing, 15-year-and-counting relationship with the Faroe Islands and its people. He tells us a funny story about how in the ’80s, jazzercise icon Jane Fonda became something of a hero to Faroe Islanders, who erected a statue in her honour.
“My friend Buttercup, who is my age, wrote to Jane Fonda and told her that they were erecting a statue of her,” shares Bill. “They never expected her to reply, but she actually came to the Faroe Islands. And when she did, she wore these cat-eye glasses, and then everybody in the Faroe Islands had to have cat-eye glasses. It’s truly one of the funniest places, and I don’t know any other place like it.”
Bill intends on donating all the proceeds of “The Faroese Chronicle” exhibition to the Shinta Mani Foundation, a charity the designer has previously been engaged with through his work with Shinta Mani Hotels in Cambodia. In fact, each painting in the collection is tied to a specific funding avenue under the charity, whether it’s full-board scholarships for underprivileged youths to the Shinta Man Hospitality School; bicycles and repairs for schools for younger children; or improvements to access to safe water for local communities.
Creation with meaningful purpose seems to be very much the Bill Bensley brand. In his architecture and design work, Bill is known for being conscientious about the space he occupies. During the construction of the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui between 2004 and 2006, for instance, the designer introduced his blueprint for “Minimal Intervention” design, building the architecture around existing natural elements, such as trees, and not disrupting the natural drainage patterns. Then more recently, with the new locomotive-themed InterContinental Khao Yai Resort, the hotel designer recovered vintage railcars from around Thailand, preserving some of the vegetation which had overtaken these discarded carriages.
Many of the resorts that Bill has designed from the ground up also rely on renewable energy, incorporate organic gardens, and work closely with local communities and support local conservation efforts. Bill’s tented camp-style resorts are prime examples of this. The critically-acclaimed Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, which was Bill’s first luxury tented camp project, operates on sustainable energy, food, water, and waste systems while also housing rescued Thai elephants. Similarly, Shinta Mani Wild – Bensley Collection in Cambodia is a sustainable 15-tent luxury camp that helps fund the Wildlife Alliance’s work in protecting local forests from poaching and logging.
“The most important thing for me, especially if we are building something in a very natural place, which is often for me, is to respect Mother Nature,” says Bill. “I teach this a lot as well—how architects specifically can work with nature and create something that’s symbiotic, that doesn’t mess up the ecosystem. We have to try to leave this world, somehow, in a better place.”
In terms of aesthetic, although Bill is often described as a maximalist designer, he himself says he has no set style. In fact, it’s one of the things he has actively avoided for most of his career: “Back in the ’80s, I was doing a lot of work in Bali and became a Baliphile. I started doing Bali gardens, and I did them everywhere until I learned my lesson in that people are very quick to put you into a box. ‘Oh, Bill Bensley, he only does Bali gardens.’ So I very consciously left Bali gardens behind to do interiors. Then I went into architecture and then hotel design. My whole life has been hopping from box to box, so I don’t get stuck in them. I don’t have and don’t want to have a specific style.”
Approaching every project as a blank slate, besides the conservationist ethos of construction, Bill is all about storytelling. Walking us through the hotel design process specifically, Bill tells us that it’s a three- to four-year process on average. We are quite surprised to learn that the scope of work entails nitty-gitties such as staff uniforms, musical ambience, floral arrangements, and even the cutlery and physical menus at each of the dining facilities—not to mention each restaurant’s distinct concept.
The three-Michelin-starred La Maison 1888 at the Bensley-designed InterContinental Danang in Vietnam is a great vignette of how Bill tells a venue’s story through design. La Maison 1888 occupies a French-colonial plantation house that was first built in 1888. If you look up at one of the ceilings inside the restaurant, you’ll see what looks to be a huge cookbook. It is actually a replica of a slice of history in the celebrated career of Michel Roux, La Maison’s initial resident chef. “The owner was paying so much to have Michel onboard, so it was important for me to imbue a sense of this incredible French chef ’s identity and cuisine in this French colonial house. Michel had shown me this menu, which was all handwritten in French, from around the time of his big break. It felt so special, so I decided to put it on the ceiling and make it look like a big book,” explains Bill.
The rest of the restaurant reflects the history of the former plantation property’s owner, with the remaining dining rooms themed after the personas of the owner’s three children. One of the children was a financier, so in his dining room, a collection of vintage calculators from the 1950s is displayed on the wall. In the brother’s room, Bill filled the space with various currencies and forms of money, hinting at this brother’s love for travel. Finally, the sister, who was a bit of a “goer”, according to Bill, liked to sleep with lots of men on the plantation. For her room, the team put in beds where people could dine, much in the style of an opium den.
“I always want a restaurant to feel almost like a gallery or museum, a place where you go to explore. If you are going there with friends, you might see something that makes you say, ‘Hey, did you see that? What is it all about?’ I want my work to start conversation,” says Bill.
Despite having built some of the world’s most impressive hotel dining rooms, Bill is a fan of simplicity when it comes to his personal dining experience. “What I really dislike are long dinners where every single pea is described,” he says hyperbolically. Vegetarian for environmental reasons, Bill enjoys mostly classic Thai dishes at home, specially prepared by his two cooks.
When asked what advice he would impart to young and aspiring architects, Bill says, “Travel. Hitchhike. Go out into the world without money, without your laptop, and without your phone. Go into the world with a sketchbook.” He speaks from his own experience of hitchhiking around the world after graduating from Harvard in his twenties and hustling his way to Singapore, which would become the starting point for his life and career in Asia.
At 66, his days of hitchhiking might be over, but Bill is still going through life with sketchbooks. “I got my new sketchbook just now because I’m leaving tonight for England. And you know why sketchbooks?” he riddles us. “Because when you take a picture of something, you never really see it, but drawing it—whether it’s a person, or a dog, a plant, or a landscape—makes you see everything. As an architect, it’s very important to see.”
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