This week LATTE chats with acclaimed designer Bill Bensley. Since 1984, Bensley has been designing resorts throughout Asia and the world. He was the Head Designer for an American company based in Singapore and Hong Kong until 1989, when he established his own business, Bensley, in Bangkok.
Bensley has designed over 200 resorts and hotels in more than 30 countries, the most recent being the Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Wild in the South Cardamom Wilderness in Cambodia which debuted in December 2018.
What was the first hotel project you worked on, and is it still in operation and bearing any of your hallmarks?
It was 1984 and at the Bali Hyatt, in Sanur Bali that I designed the pool and surrounding gardens alongside a big Australian personality named Made Widjaya, or Michael White. He was a self taught gardener and a damn good one. Recently this property has gone through a big face lift but I heard that my poolscape has survived. 👍👍
What has been your most ambitious project to date and why?
Shinta Mani Wild. Cambodia. Nine years to erect 15 tents? Without cutting a tree. We hired poachers and illegal loggers to work there.
You’ve been quoted saying you believe “luxury is dead” and that you don’t like beach resorts and you don’t like big hotels. Can you explain what you mean?
Among the the highest end traveller the idea of classic luxury, like 4,000 count bedsheets, is dead. Those folk are looking for bragging rights. We have plenty of them at Shinta Mani Wild!
You don’t like beach resorts? I much prefer historical places or the mountains… I have no time or interest to sit on the beach. There is too much to learn in this world.
And you don’t like big hotels? Who does? So what’s your niche? If I am to design a big hotel I break down the scale to make it seem like a small one, for example the JW Marriott Phu Quoc in Vietnam.
What is luxury these days, in your opinion?
Luxury is experiencing something for the very first time. Luxury is comfortably enjoying a jungle environment all by yourself. Luxury is waking up to the roar of birds of the jungle. Luxury is being loved by dogs. But a real luxury is the ability to help others, as my Dad said….”Charity begins at home.”
How important do you think sustainability is?
It is paramount to our existence on our planet. I was born in California to English immigrants. My family had a small farm where we were pretty much self-sustaining. I raised bees, quails, chickens, ducks, rabbits, mushrooms, a huge variety of veggies and of course a compost heap. We would travel with our little family trailer almost every weekend to a camp spot close by and in the summers we would travel all over the states. So, you see, I grew up with a great love for the wilderness and certainly learnt how to sustain our family with food. It makes me smile to hear the word sustainability used so frequently these days as though it is a new idea.
Have you always been interested in sustainability within the luxury hotel industry?
No, not specifically as sustainability applies to the luxury hotel industry. When I first started practicing in Asia 35 years ago only a handful of people in hospitality knew what a landscape architect was, let alone sustainability.
Do you think sustainability is a trend or here to stay?
I think the use of the word is trendy and we will move on to better and bigger words, but I think the general public’s understanding of the importance of the stewardship of our planet is here to stay, and will increase exponentially.
How has living and working in Asia shaped your design journey?
I am so glad I made that big leap across the Pacific to Asia in the early 1980s when hospitality development was in its infancy. Doors were opened easily and the opportunities to build were many… still are. My designer friends operating today in the USA tell me horror stories of insane building codes, insurances, rules and regulations, and everybody suing everybody else to such a degree that it is hard to build anything nice.
I have found that Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia has given and given and given. At an early age I learnt to speak both languages…that helped a great deal to get ideas across. To this day we maintain design ateliers in Bangkok and Bali.
It has been said that you have mentioned your best work is yet to appear. And yet critics call many of your properties iconic. How do you set about creating an ‘iconic’ hotel? If this isn’t something you try to do per se, then what do you think it is that by popular opinion makes your hotels iconic, do you think?
There are many nice things that folks say about our resorts. My fear is if I start believing them I may become complacent and satisfied. I genuinely want to stay hungry and work hard to destroy the boundaries of today’s field of hospitality. I honestly don’t know how to do that … but I am trying by way of experimentation on each and every one of the projects we have on our design boards.
Are there any fun ideas for future properties on your mental drawing board that haven’t been done yet that you can share with us?
Yes! So damn many… I am working on a super cool project in China, on a huge track of land, where I am designing a wild animal park. The animals run free while people are caged up… stay tuned.
I am working on fantastic UNESCO protected wilderness park, again in China, with just 45 rooms in total. There is a three night stay minimum because travellers stay the first night over an estuary in a stilted Chinese home. The second night is on a houseboat with a butler and a cook and one sails a long river valley to a Ming Dynasty village where guest spend their third night. My wheelhouse is migrating from architecture to the designing of experiences… And they tend to be those that I would love to do myself. There are too few projects in China that are low impact (environmentally) high yield. I want to change that.
Is there anywhere in Southeast Asia you think people still haven’t fully discovered? Anywhere you’d really love to design something?
In Asia I would love to design smalls hotels in Pagan, Kyoto and Galle. Looking further, I would love to design a safari camp anywhere in Africa.
What’s on your travel bucket list?
I have been to 95 countries but the more I travel the more my travel bucket list grows. Top of the list as of today is Pulau Widi, Georgia, Romania, Uzbekistan, Nubia, Sudan, Eritrea, Mali, and Alaska. I could go on here for several pages as I have already written and exhaustive list that get lengthened and edited every year.