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Escape artist

By STEPHANIE ZUBIRI, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 25, 2022 5:00 am

Vanity Fair has described him as “the craziest sane designer in the world,” while Condé Nast Traveller hails him as a “master of fabulation.”

The first time I encountered famed interior designer and architect Bill Bensley was at a travel conference a couple of years ago in Singapore. Known around the world for his incredible hotel and resort opuses, including the decadent The Siam in Bangkok, glamping pioneer Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Rai, and the fantastical Capella Ubud in Bali, he captivated the audience with his vivacity and passion for sustainability.

Bensley excitedly explained how he convinced developers keen on building a resort with a zoo on their grounds to instead “put the humans in the zoo” and allow the animals to roam free. Sporting a flamboyant jacket and brandishing his signature wide grin, he certainly made an impression on me and from then on, I began to dive deep into his oeuvre, adding his properties to my ever-growing bucket list of “must-visits.”

Sumptuous interiors at Capella Hanoi that give a sense of history and place.

A year later, deep in pandemic lockdown, I reached out to Bensley for an exclusive interview over Instagram Live. To my surprise, he graciously accepted my offer, resulting in an extended, candid chat about sustainability, design, art, and more. He even virtually toured us around his home in Bangkok, Baan Botanica, offering a peek into his atelier where he spends his time painting vibrant and whimsical tableaus that he sells for charity.

Generous, kind and charming, Bensley is a delight to work with. And this year he showcases his exuberant design principles in his second tome entitled More Escapism: Hotels, Resorts and Gardens around the World. From the jungle hideaway of Capella Ubud, winner of best hotel in the world, to his own Bensley Collection Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia, More Escapism features detailed presentations of 12 of Bensley’s most exciting, extravagant, outlandish and award-winning projects.

Bensley Collection Shinta Mani Siem Reap's elegant interiors with local influences.

While the projects center on Southeast Asia, spanning luxury hotels and resorts to his own home in Bangkok, American-born Bensley’s designs have international appeal and his studio has designed 200-plus projects in over 30 countries. Written by the designer himself, with consultant editor Suzy Annetta (Design Anthology), the book provides behind-the-scenes insight into his process, as well as exclusive commentary on key design details.

Reflecting Bensley’s theatrical style, the book is ambitious in format, totaling more than 500 pages, and vividly illustrated with photographs of stunning interiors. In his own words, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” However, Bensley’s designs do not only embody luxury but also a forward-thinking outlook. He has developed a reputation for building sustainably, refusing to cut down trees through his process of Minimal Intervention, and encouraging clients to turn to homegrown food in hotel kitchens and plastic-free supply chains, ensuring that his are designs for the future.

Escapism

More Escapism is a showpiece in itself and a treasure trove of interior and architectural inspiration — an essential volume for purveyors of luxury and seasoned globetrotters alike.

Bensley is a gardener, fisherman, architect, interior designer, wide-ranging explorer and lover of all things natural. He was born in Orange County, California, in 1959, when orange trees grew there. The day after graduating from Harvard, Bensley moved to Asia, where he went on to establish his own studio, Bensley, in Bangkok (1989) and Bali (1990). Since then, with his team of over 150 talented individuals, Bensley has designed more than 200 resorts, hotels and palaces in 30-plus countries.

Get to know a little more about his aesthetic, life philosophy and what inspires him most in this exclusive interview for The Philippine STAR.

What does "escapism" mean to you personally? 

Dubbed "The Master of Fabulation", sustainable architect, interior designer, and artist, Bill Bensley talks about his exotic aesthetic, life philosophy and where he finds inspiration.

BILL BENSLEY: Falling down the rabbit hole... creating hotels and resorts that take one far from reality, honing in on a unique DNA and developing that so profoundly that it is as if one has walked into an alternate universe!

Name the top three destinations that you find inspiring and why. 

San Miguel de Allende, I find, is the most sumptuous plethora of Mexican crafts, furniture, sculpture, and fine art. Cape Town is my favorite city in the world as the history of the urban fabric is still in place and the art scene is alive, alive, alive! Lastly, pre-COVID, every summer I would escape to the wilderness of Mongolia and return completely recharged.

Inspiration comes from everything, everywhere, everyone — and most of all from the projects and sites themselves! So, on that front, the creativity keeps flowing.

Among all your projects, which one is most special to you and why? 

Shinta Mani Wild, as it is the culmination of my life's work, and the hardest project… yet. It has everything I would want in a hotel: wilderness, conservation, great design, storytelling… and not to mention, the best arrival ever — who doesn't love a zipline over a waterfall followed by a stiff drink?

Many people are afraid to think out of the box when it comes to decorating. What is one piece of advice you can give them to release this fear? 

Create collections. We all have collections of things, be they mundane things like handbags, objects collected on a trip, art from a beloved artist. So take those collections, however simple, and try grouping them — all things orange, for example… or all types of human figures. Or all elephants of different sizes and materials grouped together — that looks great, too. Group, organize, reorganize, rethink, reshuffle, take photos, study the photos for composition, adjust then show.

MGallery Hotel de la Coupole stays true to its art deco heritage but gets a vibrant upgrade from Bensley.

With all the projects and creative endeavors you are currently pursuing, how do you stay inspired? Have you ever felt creatively exhausted? And how do you pull yourself out of this creative rut or blockage? 

Inspiration comes from everything, everywhere, everyone — and most of all from the projects and sites themselves! So, on that front, the creativity keeps flowing. I find what refills my creative cup is actually being more creative: painting! It has been my passion since just before COVID, and I find it to be all-consuming. There is so much I have to learn to be nearly good enough. And if something doesn't work, I look to a different artist for inspiration, use a new medium, try a different canvas size or switch to painting on wood or something else. Not everything you do is meant to be perfect on the first strike... unless you are called Ouant Khemvadee, one of my most talented designers, who has been my friend since my Singapore days. Her pencil stroke is perfection!

What excites you for the rest of the year ahead?

Our projects. Coming soon are two completely wild projects in remote Congo and in Mustang, Nepal, also known as the Forbidden Kingdom. They are perhaps the most exciting projects we have done yet.

In Congo we are creating a unique series of camps, which will empower locals and help fund wildlife and nature conservation while giving hardy travelers a chance to safely explore the last, most isolated wilderness there is, complete with elephants, gorillas, chimps, tiger fish, and many others.

In Nepal we are creating a base camp for further expeditions into the mountains, in an area that is rarely accessed by foreigners. It is completely untouched by the western world — and needs to stay so — and the landscapes are simply out of this world. Keep your ears peeled.

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For more information visit www.bensley.com .