When a luxury resort developer wants to create a truly spectacular property that’ll be talked about for years to come, there are only a handful of designers in Asia up to the task.
Bangkok-based Bill Bensley is among the top on that list.
After nearly four decades in the business with a portfolio of more than 200 luxury hospitality properties in nearly 40 countries he’s in a position to be choosy about the projects he’ll take on. And there’s one overlying philosophy that guides his decisions.
“If it’s no fun, don’t do it,” Bensley tells CNN, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “If you’re not having fun, then you’re not going to do a good job. Everybody in our studio here — 100 people — we’re all about having fun.”
It’d be hard not to have fun while working at the BENSLEY design studio, a large complex with an art deco feel that once housed Bangkok’s Iraq Embassy.
It’s more like a giant artistic playground than an office. Practically every room, from the fine arts studio to the architecture department, is a colorful buzz of creativity. (See the video at the top of this story for a peek inside.)
‘There are no boundaries’
“There are no rules to what we do in this studio. There are no boundaries. Anyone can pick up anything.”
It’s fitting, given most of projects with Bensley’s involvement are often quite whimsical, places where you’ll spend days marveling at the attention to detail.
The Harvard-educated American has designed a huge chunk of Asia’s most incredible hotels and resorts. These include Oberoi Vilas projects in India, Four Seasons’ award-winning resorts in Thailand, St. Regis in Bali and two of Vietnam’s most talked about projects to date, JW Marriott Phu Quoc and the InterContinental Danang.
He’s been invited to New York to be inducted into the Hospitality Designs Hall of Fame in November.
While Bensley’s whimsical stamp is increasingly being seen on projects around the world, a global outlook hasn’t weakened his focus.
“What makes a project magical is the ability to finish down to the smallest detail,” he says.
This isn’t hyperbole.
BENSLEY studios is known to handle everything from uniform design, menu design, signage and graphics to even the music that people hear as they’re wandering around a resort. It’s fitting, given Bensley prefers to think of his work in terms of a storyline. And he doesn’t focus on the trendiness of materials.
“Not a whole lot of people think like that so a lot of the hotels being built now are strictly utilitarian and don’t have much soul,” he says. “Even if it’s as simple as the story that we created 25 years ago with Four Seasons Chiang Mai — living on a farm. It’s surrounded by a rice field. It was a such a simple story but it will never go out of style.”
Operating in all design facets — landscaping, interiors and architecture — wasn’t part of the original plan for Bensley.
“I started out just doing landscapes and I just got so tired of doing nice gardens for bad buildings,” he says. “What I’m trying to do that’s a little bit new is to create this mesh between all of these different traditionally separate design companies, where graphic designers, landscape designers and interior designers can all come together in this place where they can work together and create a new product.”
Raiding the cabinet of curiosities
Much of the art that Bensley includes in his hospitality projects was created in his studio or handpicked during his travels.
In his warehouse, or the “cabinet of curiosities” as he calls it, you’ll find everything from animal antlers to a spiral staircase he found in a house in Myanmar.
“Buy first, think later,” he says, reasoning that if he comes across a unique piece he knows he’ll use it somewhere eventually. “I select, design and make things for the rooms that are very happy. That are joyful. That are representative of that place.”
Bensley says he often chooses projects based, not just on fun, but on whether he’s been to a location or not. Hence the reason his portfolio includes projects in nearly 40 countries. Still on his design wish list: Japan and Morocco.
“What I like the most about [my job] is working in a new place,” he says.
“Someplace where I can learn a new architectural language, can be challenged to try to see something through somebody else’s eyes. Inspiration comes from everywhere. But mostly it comes from traveling to new places for me.”
Earlier this year, Bensley released the first of a series of books that showcases 26 projects in 12 countries over the last two decades.
Appropriately called “Escapism,” the 500-page volume features beautiful, large photographs and detailed explanations of the inspirations and design processes behind each project.
So where does Bensley go to escape? Definitely not a beach resort.
“It’s funny. I’ve designed 200 resorts — a lot of them are on beaches — but you know what, the last place in the world that I want to go is go and sit on the beach. I would find that really boring.”
His vacation of choice: fly fishing in Mongolia, where he’s been going to unplug for the last four years. Last year, he took 12 of his Thai staff with him.
“We’re up there on the border and we don’t see anybody for two, three weeks,” he says. “That’s one thing I do every year. There’s no telephone, there’s no computer there. It’s completely unplugged and when I come back from there I feel like I can jump over a house.”
Coming soon: A Cambodian luxury tented camp
One of Bensley’s current projects marries his philanthropy work with his passion for design. Called Shinta Mani Wild, it’s part of Bensley’s own Shinta Mani hotel brand.
The associated Shinta Mani Foundation, which promotes responsible tourism in Cambodia, will be spearheading the conservation and community outreach programs for the camp and provide long-term employment opportunities to those in region.
Bensley says it’s his most ambitious luxury camp project to date.
Set along 1.5 kilometers of river and waterfalls, there are 16 large luxury tents perched over swift waters and waterfalls between southern Cambodia’s Bokor and Cardamom national parks. It’s due to open in mid-2018.
“I think this is gonna really change what a camp looks like for the whole world,” he says. “It’s so luxurious and beautiful.”
Bear in mind this is the same man who over a decade ago kick-started the luxury camp phenomena with the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, which he admits is one of his favorite projects of all time. He was recently invited back to design a new two-bedroom pool villa.
So what advice would Bensley offer any budding luxury resort designers?
“I would urge anyone that’s coming into hospitality for the first time to do something weird,” he says. “Do something different. Do something that’s going to surprise people. Don’t do the norm.”