Since 1989, the firm BENSLEY has been designing some of the world’s most iconic hotels, resorts, spas, homes, and sometimes even palaces. The company is an atelier of youthful energetic architects, interior designers, artists, and landscape architects based in Bangkok and Bali.
Bill Bensley, the firm’s founder, is a jack of all trades, gardener, fisherman, architect, interior designer, lover of all things natural, and most of all, a wide-ranging explorer of as many corners of the earth as he can. For the past 25 years has been travelling the world like a mad man, sometimes seeing seven countries in a week.
Raised amidst the orange trees of California, the Harvard Graduate took off for Asia the day after graduation and never looked back. After a few years working in Hong Kong and Singapore, he set up his shop in Bangkok in 1989, which soon followed Bali’s branch in 1990.
With a team of 150 interior designers, architects, landscape designers, artists, and makers of all things beautiful – as well as his other half Jirachai and their six Jack Russells – Bensley has brought to life over 200 resorts, hotels, and palaces in 30+ countries. He is on a never-ending quest to create their best work yet. According to Bill, “At Bensley we do everything from architecture to interior design, landscape architecture to graphic design – so the whole shebang! Every day I make decisions ranging from uniform design to the curve of a roof. The biggest ideations of a project to the smallest details.”
It’s not surprising that they have garnered so many awards for their work with that kind of drive. This year, one of their hotel projects, Capella Ubud, Bali, was voted the number 1 Hotel In The World at the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards 2020. In 2018, the hotel was recognized as the “Best New Hotel in the World” at the ULTRA travel awards.
Bill recounts, “In High School, we had a careers day to help kids like me figure out what the heck we were going to do with our lives. A talk by landscape architect Rocco Campanozzi triggered the lightbulb moment for me. On my invitation, he visited my high school one afternoon with a spectacular slide show of his work at Knotts Berry Farm. This amusement park, like a western Disneyland, was just a stone’s throw from my high school, and I had been visiting there since an early age. So the idea of actually getting to design a place that brings, on a daily basis, so much fun and joy to thousands of people was the lightbulb moment. I knew I had to be a landscape architect. I was smitten, hook line, and sinker. I am still in touch with Rocco to this day and often thank him for his time some 42 years ago now. Dad had me down to be a doctor – I never did have the nerve to tell him that the sight of blood made me queasy!
After studying at Cal Poly Pomona and Harvard, I am so glad I made that big leap across the Pacific to Asia in the early 1980s when hospitality development was in its infancy. Doors were opened easily, and the opportunities to build were many… still are. I have found that Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia, has given and given and given. At an early age I learnt to speak both languages … that helped a great deal to get ideas across.
Bill is a lifelong lover of words, and to date has published two books: Paradise by Design, and his latest: Escapism, with another book on the way.
ESCAPISM Volume 1, the first in a series, is a glimpse of his imaginative worlds and showcases his team’s talents. His signature is unmistaken lush, detailed, lively, playful, even downright seductive. He brought fun and wonder in the wildest of imaginations.
From the Royal Istana in Malaysia, a private beach house in Phuket, the renowned Siam Hotel, to his latest, the InterContinental Danang in Vietnam, ESCAPISM Volume 1 features more than 500 pages of vivid photographs in large format from 26 projects in 12 countries over the last two decades.
Bensley’s award-winning Capella Abud is an excellent case study in how Bill operates. The project began as a hundred room hotel, but Bill soon convinced the owner that Minimal Intervention was the way to go. The project was scaled down to just twenty-two tents hidden in the jungle, nestled between 9 acres of Ubud’s rainforest and rice paddy fields. The priority became to keep every tree: not a single one was cut down during construction. It’s why you’ll find palm trees popping up through terraces.
The biggest challenge lay in understanding where to position each tent. This was facilitated with on-site bamboo mockups of each tent to ensure the existing environment was preserved and find the best jungle views. This preserved the feeling of being tucked into a jungle sanctuary.
The camp evokes the tale of shipwrecked Dutch settlers arriving in 1800s Bali and pitching their tents. The design team crafted individual narratives for all 22 tents, each telling the story of various camp personnel: the Explorer, the Puppet Master, the Cartographer, etc.. Local craftsman were a crucial part of the project in terms of both authenticity and local craftsmanship. The teak floors in each tent were handmade in Central Java, and will last decades and decades. while hand-carved Balinese doors around the camp were specially commissioned and took artisans a year to create.
Bill recounted, “I grew up camping in a tent that was definitely a far cry from the ones we have created at Capella Ubud, but I guess as a kid I was already a story lover and teller! It is hard to put a finger on what exactly set this experience apart – I think it’s a whole set of things, which all bubble down to the story we are trying to tell. The story of early Dutch settlers shipwrecked in Bali was a great start – we imagined that from the wreckage they salvaged enough to put together a camp which impressed even the local Rajah!”
Another innovative project that Bill is proud of is Belle Mont Farm in St. Kitts. According to Bill, “The world’s first edible golf course and resort garden. Everything we planted is edible, and we created a stock of edible plants we’re distributing throughout the local community to make their lives better. They were growing one type of banana, and we brought in 22 types. Even the lawnmowers we use are edible—goats!”
Throughout the years, BENSLEY has become known as a hotel designer who integrates sustainability into all of his designs. He is now sharing that knowledge in the hopes that if the hospitality industry bands together, they might be able to do their bit in reversing climate change.
According to Bill, here are a few of their standout projects with his comments;
“It’s all about showcasing the very specific design language of Kuala Terengganu, which is different from anywhere else in Malaysia, and taking that into the 21st century. The biggest challenge was how to keep the smallness of traditional Terengganu architecture intact while constructing a larger building.”
“As research, I went to 50 different Vietnamese temples, because in any Asian culture the temple is where society put their effort. In Europe they put money into the churches, so they’re the best examples of architecture we have in Western society. So I brought the idea of a temple into the resort in a very light-hearted, innovative way.”
“For one of Thailand’s art collectors. He wanted something that’s representative of himself, eclectic, and curated like a museum. He’s a pal and we traveled together, and in Sri Lanka we bought some antiques. He has a bottomless pocket of money, which is really nice!”
“I built a series of pavilions set in a garden at the base of the Himalayan foothills. That’s how every Asian society built every single house, each pavilion, for a specific use. The beauty of that is you’re then allowed to bring air, light, and circulation to all sides of each room, which you would never have in the western context.”
“This started as a Baccarat project with a strong French look and aesthetic, but during the process it changed hands to Capella management and the emphasis became more Chinese. Now, all the 12 Chinese horoscope animals are represented there.”
“The site was fantastic, and has the world’s oldest rocks, which are granite, and huge boulders. We placed wooden bungalows among the boulders, to make one feel as if it grows out of the earth. There was not one tree felled.”
“That’s my own hotel, and for the last 12 years we’ve had a hospitality school, which is free for the kids we select. When we first started we had 3,000 kids vying for 30 positions in the school. Now it’s a lot better.”
“Once again, the challenge was: how do we take a [piece of]architecture that’s normally very small, no wider than 10 meters, and make it 200 meters? It’s all about not getting too big with one element.”
A project currently in the works is World Wild – an ambitious project that will be the first of its kind if successful. “World Wild is a special one set in China. It is going to be a set of seven hotels and a great deal of land where the animals are free and the people are in cages. how about that!” Bill says gleefully. It’s worth pointing out that the ‘cages’ Bill speaks of will actually be very nice hotels! “We were approached by a good client of ours to design a zoo with some 2,000 plus hotel rooms on a chunk of land bigger than Central Park – naturally, I was intrigued. However, I am not a fan of zoos and asked for some time to come up with something better. After visiting as many zoos and animal parks as I could in China, I went back to my client with the idea to dedicate 95% of his land for animals to run free, and 5% of the land for people to observe animals – but stay confined to that 5%, in ‘viewing cages’ for people: in other words, hotels, which in this case will involve Conrad and Hilton. My dream is that the mistreated animals of over-populated zoos in China could run free here.”
It’s clear to see that Bill is on a mission, and he has no plans to slow down. As he says, “My ambition for BENSLEY is that we keep challenging ourselves. There are many nice things that folks say about our resorts. My fear is if I start believing them, I may become complacent and satisfied. I genuinely want to stay hungry and work hard to destroy the boundaries of today’s field of hospitality. I do believe that our best work is yet to come.”
Photos Courtesty of Bill Bensley