An American in Bangkok

Hospitality Design, USA, August, 2006,

Bill Bensley looks and sounds American, his architecture credentials are from Harvard and when he met the King of Malaysia they high-fived. But talk design, and he’ll tell you that the US has done little for his personal aesthetic. Based out of Bangkok, his multidisciplinary atelier, Bensley Design Studios, has brought its fresh, hip reworking of Asian themes to over a hundred and fifty hotels and residential buildings from Mumbai to Mauritius. “I really think of myself as being more Asian than Western,” he explains. “Everyone I work with is Thai or Balinese, and most of us have been together for over fifteen years.”

Back in the 80s, fresh out of graduate school and newly arrived in Singapore, the picture couldn’t have been more different.  “My classmate in grad school had asked me to come and teach in the International University in Singapore, so I came out and interviewed,” he remembers. “They told me i didnt have enough experience,  which was absolutely correct. I  was 24! I also remember asking my friend, ‘Singpore’s under China, isn’t it?’”

This makes his metamorphosis all the more impressive:  from landcape architect with a dubious grasp on geography, to the go-to guy for high-end Asian chic, fluent in both Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. His studio’s dramatic, luxury landscapes now grace five-star properties across the region, and a few years ago the firm moved into interiors and architecture, starting with The Four Seasons’ tented camp in Chiang Rai. “Now, I look for the ability to do all three disciplines,” he says. “And for the potential of having a top name hotel company to look after the project when we’re finished.”

Since he crosses the continent the way most of us navigate our hometowns, it seems natural that travel should top his list of inspirational past-times. “Every year I make it a point to visit at least five different places I’ve never been [to] before, and when I do, I’m voracious,” he says. “I buy every book, and photograph everything … from vernacular architecture to a pile of rotten coke cans.” This scope of experience shows; just look at the Khmer temple-inspired spaces and art deco details of Siem Reap’s Hotel de la Paix (pictured), or at the echo of old Malay stilt houses in the Marina Bay at Pangkor Laut Resort. In Indigo Pearl, Phuket, an independent project that opened late last year, the Bensley team created much of the contemporary sculpture out of materials salvaged from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.  Rather than running with the Thai-silk-and-teak approach of other top properties in town, he drew ideas from the area’s tin mining past. Exposed beams, blackened steel, and brass fittings give the project roots; a rather rare sense of belonging.

“A bad part of globalistaion is that everbody gets access to everything. It’s harder and harder to find ideas and a design vocabulary that hasn’t been used, and over-used,” he says. “The Asian aesthetic that you find in the West – alot of it is not that good because it’s not understood very well. It’s more pastiche, more make-up. To hang a few Chinese hats on the wall and call it Chinese Contemporary is not successful in my book”.

“For example, it’s very easy to look to the Balinese artistic language as being the language of Indonesia.  This is not the case.  There are 3,300 islands, and almost every one has a particular thing that we as designers can draw from, to make it more localised. With printed materials like sarongs, you’ll find the patterning in central Java is very different than in eastern Java, Bali or Lombok.”

Of course, Bensley’s flare for the dramatic has also helped cement his popularity here, where, if you’ve got it, you tend to flaunt it. He has dubbed his work ‘maximalist’ in the past. “Hotels and resorts are places where we go to escape the daily mundane routine of our lives at home, so if we were to take too much of a pared down approach, the hotels are not going to be financially succesful,” he says. Time spent in a Bensley hotel or spa is to experience flaming bronze torches, successions of water features and statuary galore.

Though he claims to not follow trends, Bensley does plan to explore design sustainability in the coming years – still a fledgling concept here. A number of upcoming projects, such as a thirty-room hotel on one of Cambodia’s ‘Sweetheart Islands’, will toy with fairly radical notions of recyling (“all the energy will come from coconut plantations in neigboring islands”) and with making minimal imprints on local ecology. He is also quite certain that his future – personal and professional – lies in Asia. “I like Asian people and I like how we build here, with our hands. Arts and crafts still aren’t dead. Anything hand-made in The States now is prohibitively expensive. [In that sense] Asia’s very much a playground for a designer.”

And judging by two of its recent commissions, the playground for Bensley Design Studios just keeps growing. Two palaces, one for the Malaysian monarchy, another for the richest family in India, are currently on the boards. If there had ever been doubt about this American’s kudos in Asia, surely little could dispel it as swiftly as the royal nod.