A designer and architect who knows no limits, Bill Bensley is best known for dreaming up hotels and landscapes fully immersed in culture, history, nature, and ingenuity – all realised with a joyful and whimsical flair. The oddest discoveries end up becoming the heart of his projects, he says, as he finds inspiration from his surroundings and just about everywhere.
Bensley’s projects include Four Seasons Resorts in Chiang Mai, Koh Samui, Intercontinental Danang, Capella Bali, Capella Hanoi, Rosewood Luang Prabang. The California-born Bensley has made Southeast Asia his home, and nowhere is the idiosyncratic energy of the artist and his love of nature more felt than at Baan Botanica in Bangkok. Bensley and his husband, Jirachai Rengthong, named the property to describe the free-spirited tropical wonderland where more than 15,000 species of plants thrive in abundance, along with some beloved pet terriers and a colourful collection of art and curios. Ahead of Sotheby’s Modern Art Online: Zao Wu-Ki to Le Pho (1-8 June, Hong Kong), Bensley discusses his methods for designing interiors, the narratives that inspire him, favourite artists, and the importance of sustainability and conservation.
Sotheby's: What draws you to Southeast Asia? How has the aesthetics and historical cultures of Thailand, Vietnam, Bali and Cambodia inspired the hotels you designed?
Bill Bensley: Southeast Asia is, in a word, sublime. For me professionally, it is a true El Dorado. From the start I have been surrounded by incredible craftspeople, artists, architects, designers, and learned so very much from them.
Designing a hotel is akin to producing a Hollywood movie; both need compelling storylines or else risk ill-fated opening nights. For each project, we come up with a unique DNA that influences everything from the architecture to the tableware. That is the key to success as every part of the design.
"Narrative is everything to me, as I have always loved storytelling, and no project is complete without a real design DNA. "
Each place has a history, stories to tell, a local architectural vernacular. We do a deep dive into the place’s history and people, finding the most interesting characters, and bring their story alive.
At the Capella Ubud in Bali, we saved a sacred valley by steering the owner away from an envisioned 120 room hotel, towards 23 unique tents placed in the treetops. Each one tells the story of the first Dutch who landed in Bali and their encounters with the raja (king). We imagine they were shipwrecked and made tents with sails as well as the magical objects they discovered in Bali.
"There is a natural ability and tradition in this part of the world to use natural products such as bamboo, water hyacinth and lacquer which is plant based – it is more a matter of encouraging and developing these ideas"
At the MGallery Hotel de la Coupole in Sapa, Vietnam, we had a brief to create a luxurious hotel. While ferreting the less fashionable streets of north Paris for antiques, Jirachai and I came upon a 1930s Vietnamese bamboo hat, covered in white and watermelon polka dots. That little treasure inspired an entire hotel; I based the story on how the local hill-tribes influenced the haute couture of Paris, as Sapa was once a hill-station for French colonials seeking an escape from the summer heat.
"As a landscape architect by trade, I am first and foremost inspired by the site. As landscape architects we think we can create paradise, but the fact is that compared to what Mother Nature has created on this earth, we can only make it worse."
How has modernism inspired your work?
The 20th century art movements have inspired both my hotel designs and own painting. In Singapore, our Twin Towers project was driven design wise by dozens of unique interpretations the work of Keith Haring. While in Bali, at the St. Regis, we imagined: “If Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder, and Henry Moore had lived in Bali, how would the culture have influenced their work?” The 100 or more garden sculptures I designed were a unique modernist extension of the Balinese art genre.
This September in Bangkok, I am having my first art show where all of the proceeds will go to the Shinta Mani foundation + Wildlife Alliance of Cambodia. My paintings draw from a plethora of 20th century art movements, especially fauvism.
What are some artists that collect yourself? Any favourites from the upcoming auction?
Walter Spies, Rudolph Bonnet, Auke Sonnega, Theo Meier, Donald Friend, Arie Smit, Nyoman Masriadi, Mangu Putra, and Richard Winkler. I am inspired daily by the incredible draftsmanship of Spies and Bonnet, the unabashed use of colour by Meier, Friend, and Smit and the humorous storytelling of Masriadi. In the auction, I love the Theo Meier, on offer. It would make a marvellous birthday present for me next month! I also like the Han Snel Balinese Beauties and Walasse Ting Four Ladies with Parrots.
How would you imagine these artworks in an interior setting?
I spend a great deal of time arranging our collection. I have our paintings and drawings by Rudolf Bonnet in one room and arranged, clockwise, from the earliest to the latest. This allows us to see clearly his progression as an artist. Another room is filled with Theo Meir’s work, and as his work is primarily warm colours like salmon and oranges, we have painted the room a sunflower yellow which sets off Theo’s paintings marvellously.
I love to layer. I often will place a less important piece like an antique textile as a background behind a really important modernist piece like a Botero. Conversely, I might pair a portrait of a man with a sculpture of a dog just because I could imagine that the two could be best friends.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Long before becoming an architect and an interior designer, I trained to be a landscape architect. Part of that was learning to be a patron of the Earth, a guardian of Mother Nature. In designing hotels that welcome thousands of people every year, I have a responsibility to do what I can to protect our planet. In many of our projects we built in sustainable measures, such as smart building orientation, cross ventilation, the use of natural light, which saves the client money.
One of my goals is to rewild the earth, and make people realise that we are part of it. Sustainability is in everything that we do at BENSLEY– we spend our days designing buildings filled with ways to minimise use of fossil fuels and maximise connection with nature. I having recently opened my own BENSLEY Outsider Art Gallery, and the proceeds go back to support conservation efforts.
How do you combine the art of storytelling, hospitality, and conservation in one immersive experience?
One project very close to my heart, is the BENSLEY Collection Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. It all started with my dear friend Sokoun Chanpreda - Founder of the Shinta Mani Foundation, which provides clean water, education, healthcare, housing, loans and more to Cambodians in need – all with just 5% of the nightly room rate donated from the Shinta Mani Hotels we work on together. One day we found out about a government sale of forest land. We ended up buying a piece of land the size of Central Park (in New York) to save it – and some 875,000 trees, 4.5 kilometres of wild river and three waterfalls – from becoming logging and titanium mining sites. I created a high yield low impact camp to sustainably support the policing of the forest. We hired locals – many of them ex-poachers and loggers – to build fifteen luxury tents without cutting down a single tree. The guiding DNA was the safari Jackie Onassis took with King Sihanouk during her travels to Cambodia in 1967.
Tents have a low environmental impact, and we can charge a significant room rate, which funds the protection of the forest. To do this we partnered with the Wildlife Alliance, a private army of rangers. Wildlife are slowly returning, as we create a safer haven. It is in many ways, my dream hotel, from the adrenalin-filled zipline arrival to the immersion in one of the last great wildernesses of Southeast Asia. It is the culmination of my life's work, taking everything I have learned about hotel design in 35 years to create a great series of experiences.