An American Designs Asia: The Design of Bill Bensley

Written by | Art & Design, Travel

Baitong Guards

Shintamani Siem Reap — Baitong Guards

How did a California-born, Harvard-educated architect become the most sought-after hotel designer in Southeast Asia? It might be his philosophy.

Chances are, if you’ve stayed in a top-tier luxury resort in Southeast Asia or followed news of the hottest hotel openings in the region, you have noticed the design work of Bill Bensley.

Over the past two decades, this native of California’s Orange County has quickly become the go-to hotel designer for luxury brands there, including the Four Seasons and InterContinental. His projects range from city retreats (The Siam in Bangkok) to beach resorts (the InterContinental Danang in Vietnam) to rustic-chic eco-getaways (the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle).

Bensley fell in love with Asia on his first visit to Singapore, fresh out of Harvard in 1984. He settled in Bangkok in 1989 with his partner, landscape designer Jirachai Rengthong. Now together for 25 years, the two have been collaborating every since.

Today, Bensley has two ateliers — the original, opened in Bangkok in 1989, and another he opened in Bali a year later. Bill Bensley Design Studios currently employs 150 architects, interior designers, landscape architects and artists who have worked on nearly 200 hotels in over 30 countries.

Every Last Detail

apsara smokes bedroom

Park Hyatt Siem Reap

“My prime interest is to design the architecture, interiors, gardens, uniforms and all of the thousands of small details — like menus, trash cans, tabletops and more — as a complete, seamless experience,” Bensley explains.

So when guests arrive at a Bensley-designed hotel, his touch is present from walls to walkways — not to mention in dramatic flourishes like the Angkor Wat–inspired bas-relief banyan sculptures in the Park Hyatt Siem Reap’s Living Room lounge, or the fish-shaped towel hooks at the Maia Seychelles.

“As a hotel designer in Southeast Asia,” says Bensley. “I resonate with the wonderful variety of crafts that are still made by hand here. Fewer and fewer countries around the world have such variety and quality of handiwork.”

“I love to make unique statements,” adds Bensley. So, he’s crafted spots where guests can lounge on daybeds as the sun sets beyond the mountains at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai’s Ratree Bar or climb aboard one of the innovative “dining swings” at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap to sample a Khmer-French-fusion feast.

Bensley also aims to create experiences specific to their locations, and he uses the rich cultural heritage of the region to do so: “The employment of Southeast Asia’s crafts inherently evokes the history of the place,” he says. To ensure this, he’s racked up an impressive knowledge of Asia’s aesthetic evolution. Then, Bensley takes this knowledge and showcases the ideas in unexpected and effusive ways. “I am an enemy of empty surfaces,” says Bensley, “an antagonist of minimalism, and a purveyor of the peculiar.” Bensley says he is constantly on the hunt for “all things wild and quirky.”

“I love to create spaces, inside or out, that take time — lots of time — to explore. A successful resort, for me, is one that takes several days to see all corners, all the odds and ends, and even then you are not quite done,” he says.

One example of this vision is the Four Seasons Tented Camp in the far corner of Thailand’s Golden Triangle. It’s one of the world’s most exclusive glamping (“glamorous camping”) experiences. Full-scale luxury safari tents flank the Ruak River and neighboring Laos and Myanmar from lush, tree-covered hills.Guests are treated to elephant excursions and riverboat rides. Bensley designed the camp with nods to both traditional Thai hill villages and African safari camps.

Every luxury tent contains eye-catching amenities like hand-hammered copper tubs, plush leather bush chairs and expansive wooden decks. Each is also unique, designed according to a theme.

Another example of Bensley’s love of collections is The Siam in Bangkok’s tony Dusit district. Here, Bensley created a 39-room luxury oasis in the middle of one of the world’s most stimulating metropolises — one that has garnered rave reviews since opening in 2012. It is also a sort-of museum for its indie rock star–owner Krissada Sukosol Clapp’s art and antiques collections, with more than 3,000 pieces altogether, displayed throughout the public areas and in the rooms themselves.

But it may be the property’s 100-year-old all-teak structure called Connie’s Cottage that is the true centerpiece of the hotel’s aesthetic. The cottage was actually once a landmark on the Thai social scene. Its former owner, antiques collector Connie Mangksau, hosted 20th-century luminaries including Jackie Kennedy and Henry Ford there. In a nod to authenticity, the cottage was designed such that it could be disassembled and then floated down the Chao Phraya to Bangkok. In restoring it, Bensley’s design drew from Bangkok’s turn-of-the-century Belle Epoque, with art deco flourishes like a central atrium inspired by the Musée d’Orsay.

A Sense of Place

Bar with Elephant statues

Park Hyatt Siem Reap

Bensley’s desire to communicate a sense of place translates into a sensitivity for its environment and culture, as well. For example, one of Bensley’s latest projects is the ambitious InterContinental Da Nang: a sumptuous resort on the sunny South China Sea–coast of Vietnam. It’s strung along a steep slope of the Sun Peninsula that cascades down to a jungle-fringed beach near Monkey Mountain.

The topography may sound like a challenge, but rather than blast it away, Bensley and his team integrated it into a harmonious whole by using a funicular system to link the resort’s four levels, known as Sea, Earth, Sky and Heaven. The transport carries guests easily from private rooms to pools and restaurants.

Similarly, when constructing the Four Seasons Koh Samui, whose villas are perched along paths snaking through native jungle, none of the existing 854 coconut palms on the land were cut down to accommodate the buildings. Instead, Bensley focused on fitting the resort around the existing landscape. To Bensley, the design is meant to enhance the experience of the environment, not compete with it. “Eco-sensitivity is paramount in our work, says Bensley. “I was trained as a landscape architect, and I view myself as a guardian of Mother Nature.”

But what happens when Bensley takes on several projects in the same vicinity? “With resort or spa design, the opportunity is there to tell a story about the place,” he says.

Case in point: On Thai vacation destination Phuket, Bensley is currently working on five hotels, and he has a guiding vision for each. He explains, “Indigo Pearl Resort tells the story of its specific site, as it was a tin mine.” By contrast, “The InterContinental in Rawai is a complete renovation of a resort that was built in the 1960s.” So Bensley’s team is “reviving its Thai Modern 1960s vibe in new fresh ways.”

He says of a third, the Zing: “Zing is short for zingiber, or the ginger family of tropical flowers,” Bensley says. So he plans “to make this a very green hotel, both environmentally and botanically, as it will boast hundreds of species of heliconias and gingers in the best tropical garden in Phuket.”

The most fun of the five might be the Indigo Patong. “It is meant to tell the story of the neighborhood,” says Bensley. But not just any neighborhood: “Watch out, as I am putting Patong cabaret ladyboys with attitude, heels and full drag at the front desk.”

Last but not least:“Koh Racha, a little island just off the south coast of Phuket, has a glorious beach but not much else.” It’s a blank slate for Bensley to build upon — and he took full advantage.“I rewrote, tongue in cheek, the 2,000-year history of Phuket to include Koh Racha as a center of its economy,” he effuses. In other words, he is building an alternate version of history. Bensley’s new “historic” buildings will “include a village, officers’ quarters, army barracks and the like, as was common in the region in 1900.” To bring this vision to fruition, Bensley and his team conducted extensive research in other regional hubs to familiarize themselves with similar buildings from the time period.

By respecting the nuances of the individual properties, Bensley discovered, “One place, Phuket, had five very different place-oriented stories to tell.” And though they may be very different projects, the overriding commonality to them all Bensley’s robust sense of fun.

The Traveler’s Experience

Four Seasons Samui

Four Seasons Samui

Also uppermost in Bensley’s mind when he designs are his own globe-trotting experiences. “As a traveler myself,” he offers, “I visited the villages outside of Siem Reap over ten years ago and came across a young mother raising her five children, each about a year apart in age. The father had left them to fend for themselves,” Bensley remembers.

“The six of them were living on top of a pile of sticks, no roof, eating roots from the forest to survive,” he continues. “The youngest, a two-year-old, despite an enlarged, malnourished stomach, smiled and laughed his way into my heart. I could not believe how such poverty could be present so close, physically, to the fine life that we lead in Bangkok.”

The visit left a lasting impression. “I swore to myself to try to help,” he says. “Today, that family has a house, fresh water, and all the kids are in school and doing well, due to assistance from our Shinta Mani Foundation, based in Siem Reap.”

It’s because of the foundation’s thus far successful mission that Bensley says the hotel property of which he is proudest is the Shinta Mani Resort. “Not because it is super luxurious,” he clarifies. “I am proud of it because we have a free school right there at the hotel that has changed the lives of many young Cambodians for the better.”

And though Bensley may be, by trade, a designer of hotels that offer unparalleled luxury, he says, “My suggestion to travelers is to look beyond the pool lounge chairs, get into the community and see what is actually under the surface. It may change your life, too.”

To see more of Bill Bensley’s work in Southeast Asia, visit bensley.com.

Read about traveling in Vietnam.

Last modified: June 18, 2018