Resorting to stories: How Bill Bensley creates a sense of luxury
One of Asia’s leading landscape and sustainability designers, Bill Bensley’s work is inspired by the world around him
The only thing about Bill Bensley that is not enigmatic is his talent. As one of Asia’s leading landscape and sustainability designers, his skills are on display all over South and South East Asia, at top-end hotels and resorts such as the Oberoi Vilas properties, the JW Marriott PhuQuoc, the Capella Hanoi, The Siam in Bangkok and the Intercontinental in Danag. In other aspects of his life, however, Bensley enjoys being slightly out of reach.
He is 64 years old, but he says he’s “going on 39”. He describes himself as, “a bit of everything… gardener, fisherman, architect, interior designer, lover of all things natural, conservationist, painter and explorer of as much of the world possible. Oh, and dog lover.”
He also believes he has the spirit of the 1960s within him. He was a child in that tumultuous decade, but “that energy must have influenced me at some level,” he says. “I was barely 10 and more interested in planting and gardening, but it must have seeped in somewhere.”
A tale of love
Growing up in California, Bensley was never much interested in hotels or interiors until he worked in India in 1984 with the interior architect Jeffrey Wilkes, his best friend. From India, he travelled to Southeast Asia – and fell in love, with the region and with horticulturist Jirachai Renthong, who became his husband.
Bensley has lived in Southeast Asia since 1984 and adores Thailand for its laidback attitude. “Here, there is no need to label oneself [one’s sexuality] constantly, you are just accepted as you are,” he says.
The vibrancy of the region also allowed Bensley room to explore, on a larger scale, his tendency to recycle and upcycle.
“As a child, my parents instilled in me the mindset of using what we had rather than buying new,” he explains. “That led to a playful approach to making things with junk and it has never stopped being fun. I always liked making things. Once, I put together shadow boxes made of all sorts of odds and ends, organic and not, and cycled down to Venice beach to exhibit them with artists. I was a kid. They all sold!”
As a landscape architect, he works in collaboration with nature. “My respect for the environment started as I gardened and tended the land with my dad from a young age,” Bensley says. “Design for me is inspired by my surroundings. I visit a site and soak up the atmosphere, history, stories of locals, architectural vernacular.”
At other times, he has stumbled upon things that inspire him, such as the time he was in “the less posh streets of north Paris” and came across a 1930s Vietnamese bamboo hat covered with white and watermelon polka dots. The design ended up on the room keys at the Hotel de la Coupole in Sapa, Vietnam. “I always carry a big sketchpad or mounted pieces of watercolour paper,” Bensley says. “Watercolours help me document and interpret my travels.”
On his trips to India, he practically bursts with design ideas, he says. “I can’t get enough of India. There is always something to look at, to discover, to soak in,” says Bensley. “The Oberoi Amarvilas, Rajvilas, and Udaivilas remain some of my most favourite gardens to date. The graphics and patterns we saw everywhere were so bold, they lent themselves to be sketched and reimagined by us and translated into stonework and the like.”
This abundance of beauty has made Bensley keen to preserve traditional art forms everywhere. “In India this was re-enforced with the craftsman we worked with for the Oberoi projects. We do our best to support local craftspeople and bring forth their talent,” he says.
Despite the bursts of colour that excite Bensley on his travels, he appears to be just as fascinated by black and white.
“I find it striking and timeless,” he says. “Having said that, there is nothing more boring to me than a white box! But there is not really any bad colour out there, as long as it is used well. There is an Art Deco and Art Nouveau design aesthetic in my work and I often it to weave the DNA of the design through every aspect so there is consistency in our storytelling.”
Unlike most creative people, Bensley is a canny businessman. He builds strong relationships with the owners of the properties he works on and maintains a creative/design contract with them. This “ensures the sensibilities and vision for the property are not destroyed during any renovation or updates. I think the main idea about our storytelling within a hotel is teaching someone something new and sometimes that needs to be revisited,” Bensley says.
Because his clients trust him so much, he was once able to convince a hotel owner in Bali to change his original idea of a 120-room low-end Accor hotel to what became the most expensive rooms and sustainably savvy project in Bali – the Capella Ubud. “It is a wonderful thing to have a client who supports your ideas . The best projects come from this kind of understanding in each other,” Bensley says.
Bensley’s top five
1) Capella Ubud, Indonesia: The tale of shipwrecked Dutch settlers arriving in 1800s Bali and pitching their tents was recreated here. We created stories for every one of the 22 tents – the Explorer, The Captain, the Cartographer and so on.
2) Hotel de la Coupole, Vietnam: The marriage of hill tribe fashion and Parisian haute couture started with the find of a Vietnamese hat covered in polka dotted fabric in Paris.
3) JW Marriott PhuQuoc, Vietnam: This was an abandoned university brought to life.
4) Shinta Mani Wild, Cambodia: Inspired first and foremost by conservation, but with some romanticism. King Sihanouk and Jackie Kennedy travelled through Cambodia together in 1967. What might have that adventure looked like?
5) Capella Hanoi, Vietnam: The small boutique hotel for those passing through Hanoi to see the Opera fell into disrepair and has since been revived.
From HT Brunch, March 25, 2023
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