When it comes to luxury hotels and resorts, the devil is in the detail. From antiques shipped to Vietnam via Camden market to legends and stories that give depth to the experience, designer Bill Bensley has taken classic hotel design and tripped it on acid. You may think you’ve seen it all after visiting one of his properties, but escaping to one of his newest creations such as JW Marriott Emerald Bay (Phu Quoc) will make you rethink what it is to experience five-star-luxury all together.
But what kind of designer can build a brand new hotel and make it look like identical to a 1920’s University? With no limitations when it comes to fun and clients with blank chequebooks, Bill Bensley has thrived in the luxury market and made quite the impact. This kooky and fearless interior designer has his name to some of the most exclusive and well-appointed resorts around the world. From Bangkok’s most instagrammable hotel, The Siam to his exclusive six-star Bensley Collection villas at Shinta Mani (Siem Reap) his heart is most definitely in warmer climates. Originally from the USA, his creative hub is a mere stones throw from The Siam in downtown Bangkok. Fortuitously for us, our Travel Writer, Jenna was more than happy to hunt down three of his most exciting designs in South East Asia and even grab ten minutes with his unique mind. That was before he set off to work on one of his countless projects however…
JC: I have absolutely loved exploring your designs in South East Asia. I even described staying at JW Marriott Emerald Bay as ‘Disneyland for adults’ as every square inch of that place is entertaining and intriguing. Just how do you convince corporate hotel chains to take on such elaborate design concepts?
BB: Ah the D word! I love it. It has a such a great connotation for well done hospitality but so many look down their noses at the name Disneyland. I grew up next to the park. Born the same year it opened in 1959. My entire village worked there. There are thousands of theme parks around the world all Disneyland wannabe’s. But in the hotel world, the D word is still the D word. It should not be.
I have been designing out of the box hotels for some time now so I know what buttons to push for to keep the corporate suits happy. If the hotel functions efficiently and is easy to maintain, that is half the battle. All hotel chains know we can tick that box, so it really up to me to convince the investor go the extra mile. As our hotels are financially successful this just gets easier.
JC: As all of your designs are so unique with their own legends and stories, what inspiration do you call on to continuously invent?
BB: I think that it is important to let the story grow naturally from the place that we are building. In almost all corners of the world, there are unique stories sleeping just under the surface that one just needs to dust off. As a romanticist, I find a great deal of possible material in the history of a place. I am an avid reader, and when I visit a new place or a new site for a hotel I load of the truck with as many books as I can possibly manage to become familiar with my newest infatuation. I will ALWAYS visit all of the surrounding places of worship…. Mosques, temples, chapels, churches, monasteries….. as these are the places that, historically, are the vaults of man’s design energies.
JC: Alongside taking inspiration from the natural landscape and history of a venue, what would you say is your ‘calling card’ in all of your designs?
BB: Good question as I don’t really know myself. I strive to make each and every project totally different from the next as my clients NEVER want to have a photocopy of the last project nor would I ever dream of giving them one. Once you start repeating yourself in the design world you are dead. If I had to answer directly I would say it was an element of surprise, and a quirky layering of unique interesting objects … to enhance my telling of stories.
JC: Just how do you find the energy and time to collect all the unique objects of art and quirky furniture for each property?
BB: Well, you know what it does not take too much energy to get out of bed and do the thing that you love to do. I love shopping. Not in malls, or in boutiques, (I could not care less about the latest fashion for myself but in fairs filled with antiques, junk stores, markets, art galleries, and you know why? because you can learn so much first hand about how the world used to operate. I love the Victorian era as they had an invention for every possible use. Most of it absolutely useless today, but beautiful, none the less. I romanticize about the time when people had the time and energy to make beautiful objects with their hands. I actively seek out craftsmen today that make unique products, by hand, to our specifications to adorn our hotels. And I am currently filming a TV series of 13 episodes that explores, each week, a lost craft and craftsmen and their specific contribution to my hotel project.
JC: I am so excited to see this series as the staff at your designs were buzzing about being featured! Shinta Mani Bensley Collection (Siem Reap) in particular. What excites you the most about one of your newest projects – Shinta Mani WILD?
BB: The fact that we are taking a neglected part of Cambodia that sorely needs help in that it is over logged and over poached for the wild animal meat trade and we are bringing this to the forefront. And by doing so we are building alongside of Wildlife Alliance and National Geographic a private army backed by the Cambodian Government to seriously enforce the laws against illegal poaching and logging. My wish is that one day that people not only visit Angkor Wat but come to the Cardamon Forrests to see the raging sisters (waterfalls) and the vast estuaries, the mountain tops, and help us protect what is left of SE Asia’s greatest wild asset long after I leave the gorgeous world.
JC: I honestly fell in love with Cambodia during my trip, as the temples were wonderful, but the people were even better. It surprised me just how humble and happy they were with so little, and it made me quite emotional! How do you upkeep your kooky, positive and carefree attitude in such a demanding role?
BB: It is about defining the role. If it is no fun, don’t do it. Positive? If my clients take on a “demanding” tone then I would shy away, as there is no room in the creative process for negativity. Having said that, all my projects are owned by great like-minded carefree owners that enjoy the incredibly fun process of building a hotel or two. Kooky? Well that comes naturally!
JC: After Cambodia, I flew to Bangkok for a few crazy days and a stay at one of your gorgeous creations – The Siam. After living in Bangkok for so many years, what is your favourite element of South East Asian culture?
BB: My Thai husband of 30 years. He is a cultural icon!
2nd? I love vernacular residential and religious architecture of se asia as it a great source of inspiration. These cultures in asia have had hundreds of years to perfect the use of local materials to make dwellings that adapt so well with local weather patterns and other idiosyncrasies, but we as a modern society rush to throw what we know out to live the dream of the west… The vernacular will make a strong return sometime in the future as something innovative when we all have forgotten what really makes sense.
Bill Bensley’s new series ‘ESCAPISM’ is coming soon so keep your eyes peeled. His full collection of hotel designs and projects can be found at bensley.com.
The Siam Bangkok – Suites start from 18,900.00 THB / Night with daily breakfast included.
Shinta Mani Bensley Collection – Private Pool Villas start from £617 GBP / Night including Butler service and daily breakfast.
JW Marriot Phu Quoc Emerald Bay – Resort View (Rue De Lamarck) Suite’s start from £397.38 / Night including daily breakfast.
Shinta Mani WILD – coming soon.
Read about Jenna’s full South East Asia trip in The Islands Issue coming in December.