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MEETING…BILL BENSLEY


OPPOSITE PAGE: The Main Residence at The Siam Hotel is a majestic conservatory space of living palms in a water feature of polished black granite ABOVE: Bill Bensley’s designs for the hotel aim to evoke the culture and heritage of Thailand through the ages, using authentic antiques, sculptures, and curios. A muted monochromatic colour scheme creates an Art Deco-style backdrop


has come to specialise in turnkey resort projects over the past ten years – counting Anantara, Four Seasons, InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental and Oberoi among its clients – Bensley first came to prominence in the region as a landscape architect, a profession underpinned by his deep-rooted passion for natural environments. Hailing originally from California, where his earliest memories are of raking up fallen rubber plant leaves, the 53-year-old designer has his father to thank for his love of gardening. Indeed so good-looking was the front yard he tended daily at his suburban home that passers-by would stop to take photographs. A chance encounter with a landscape architect for a careers class at school cemented his interest and he pursued this vocation through college, winning a scholarship to Harvard University. Bensley successfully graduated with a Masters in urban design and landscape architecture although the esoteric teaching occasionally left him out of his depth. It was a fellow classmate and mentor, Lek Bunnag from Thailand, who explained the building blocks of architecture in common sense terms. Not surprisingly an invitation from Bunnag, who was starting to


teach at the National University of Singapore, to join him and his wife proved irresistible and the young Bensley found himself in Asia in desperate need of funds, having journeyed to his destination via months of hitchhiking across Europe. He immediately landed a job at Belt Collins in 1984, designing gardens for five-star resorts and immersing himself in the culture of his favourite Asian destination at the time, Bali.


The call to set up his own practice came in


1989 at a time when Thailand was emerging economically. Becoming fluent in Thai and again absorbing the culture, Bensley set up shop in a Bangkok garage, sharing the cramped facility with Bunnag and a small staff. The pair worked collaboratively before establishing a joint studio that they eventually outgrew.


In 2003 Bensley and his company director Brian Sherman took the final step to independence, moving their team to the former premises of the Iraqi Embassy, a complex that affords plenty of space, tropical gardens, a gym and swimming pool. It is here that designers of different disciplines work alongside each other in a creative environment that encourages the cross-pollination of ideas.


Bensley is not an advocate of pigeonholing talent: “Many people have been with me for over 15 years now so we function as a family. A designer, from whichever discipline, is eventually going to be inquisitive about another area of expertise, so we nurture that curiosity. You don’t become a good interior designer simply because you have the requisite knowledge – you have to be creative first and that comes from being happy in what you do.” It was his desire to expand into other disciplines that prompted Bensley to hire an interior designer, a move that has resulted in the studio evolving from landscape specialism to a full-service atelier. Of course, developers have also had to show willing to facilitate Bensley’s leap into interiors; Bill Heinecke offered the first opportunity at Anantara Hua Hin Resort although it was at the Four Seasons Langkawi, opened in early 2005, that Bensley proved what was he was fully capable of when let loose inside. Since then, five-star properties wholly conceived by the studio, such as Hôtel de la Paix in Siem Reap and Indigo Pearl in Phuket, have garnered industry awards. Set to be unveiled this month, the “no-expense-spared” InterContinental Danang Resort in Vietnam debuts with


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