In episode six of the Skift Ideas Podcast, host Colin Nagy is joined by designer Bill Bensley to discuss the remarkable journey that has shaped his unique perspective on the world of design.
In episode six of the Skift Ideas Podcast, Colin Nagy is joined by Bill Bensley, Founder of Bensley, a globally renowned designer celebrated for his award-winning contributions to the fields of architecture, landscape, and interior design.
Bill, who is affectionately known as the “Willy Wonka of Design”, founded Bensley in 1990, which today is today a small atelier of youthful, energetic architects, interior designers, artists and landscape architects that know no limits.
Join us as we explore the remarkable journey that has shaped Bill’s unique perspective and approach to design – from his upbringing on a self-sustaining farm in California to his deep-rooted commitment to sustainability – and gather insights into how Bill blends his two passions of design and conservation, to ensure his projects have a positive impact on the environments in which his projects come to life.
Colin Nagy: Hey Everyone, welcome back to this Skift Ideas podcast. Thanks for tuning in. I’m delighted to have Bill Bensley with us, founder of Bensley, and he is affectionately known as the Willy Wonka of Design. He founded Bensley in 1990 and which is a small ateliers of youthful, energetic architects, interior designers, artists and landscape architects that know no limits.
He’s widely celebrated for his hotel landscape and interior designs alongside his passions for conservation and philanthropy. And throughout his years, he’s seamlessly and brilliantly combined his work with these two passions to benefit the environment and the communities in which he’s created these projects.
So, Bill, I’ve been a longtime fan, and it’s really nice to have you here. Good morning to Bangkok. It’s Sunday evening in Los Angeles, but it looks like a nice morning over there.
Bill Bensley: Yes. Good morning. Yes. Good morning. It is a very nice morning here. Thank you for having me on the show.
Nagy: It’s a pleasure. Now, I want to understand a little bit of your earlier life. You know, you grew up in California before the world, before kind of traveling the world and landing where you are now in Southeast Asia. Give us a little bit of the back story. Your education and early sort of intellectual history and interests and things like that.
Bensley: Well, that’s… How many days do you have to discuss that? Yeah, I grew up in Anaheim and amongst the walnut groves and the orange groves. I was very fortunate to grow up with two immigrant parents from England. And they brought with them after the war to Canada and to California, they brought with them the ability to farm. So me and two of my other siblings, we learned how to farm at a very, very early age.We had chickens and ducks and rabbits, goose and bees and apricots and oranges, of course, and every type of vegetable possible. And we supplied ourselves and much of the neighborhood with food so, this funny world, funny word called sustainability, you know, sort of I never heard of it until about 2017, but I certainly grew up with the principles of it.
Nagy: So it’s something that’s kind of informed from a very early stage. Now, went to school in Boston. And tell me about some of your early, early studies. Like what were you focused on at that point, because at that stage, you hadn’t kind of moved into design as much as it was. Was it landscape?
Bensley: Yeah, I went to Cal Poly Pomona. And I enrolled there in 1977 and got my degree in landscape architecture and did well there. And in doing so, I won a full ride, full scholarship to Harvard, where I did my bachelor’s, no my master’s degree in urban design under the architect Moshe Safdie. And that was a wonderful experience, but primarily because of my classmates, classmates that I met there in school, not so much because of the professors.
And my classmates ended up teaching me more than my courses, actually. I was the youngest in the class and the dumbest in the class for sure. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I did get through it. And on graduation day I asked my good friend, Lek Bunnag, who is an architect here in Bangkok, said, Lek, where are you going to go and where are you going to go after graduation?
He said, I’m going to go to Singapore. I said, well where the heck is Singapore? And he says, well, it’s under China, south of China. And I said, Can I come along? And so I did. And I backpacked, after graduation, I backpacked through Europe at $6.46 per day. But that was when the dollar was stronger than the pound.
And I had a wonderful time and hitched. I got to Kuala Lumpur by flight. Hitch-hiked down to Singapore because I ran out of money. And when I went knocked on Lek’s door, he let me in, thankfully. And the next day I got a job that Belt Collins Landscape Architecture company. And the next week I was on a plane down to Bali designing Bali Gardens, and the rest is history.
Nagy: It’s funny how you’ve been you’ve been Bangkok based for 40 years, but the story kind of took place because of a chance meeting which, which I love.
Nagy: And what were your first impressions, you know, as you were spending time in Singapore and Southeast Asia, you know, having studied and, I said Boston earlier, but obviously Cambridge and then obviously growing up in California. It had to have been like a bit of a sci-fi, interesting experience, you know, for a traveler.
Bensley: I thought it was paradise. It was like, you know, I felt like I was going to Tahiti for the first time. And in Bali in the early eighties it was really paradise. There was nothing but dirt roads and there were very few cars. I had one of the few cars on the island and it was mostly people, you know, riding bicycles and all the way up to Ubud through the Syan Road.
That was still a dirt road. It was one way and there were very few people that would travel on the roads and you’d stop. If you ran out of gas, or if there was something wrong with your car, there would be ten people that come out of the village and they would push me. I had an old Volkswagen Safari and they would push you right?
And then everybody screamed with laughter and yelling that the thing got running again. And I was happy and I’d wave like this. And I learned how to speak Indonesian. And of course, it was paradise.
Nagy: And as a designer at that time landscape. But also someone with a sense of space and aesthetic, you know who were you inspired by? Who were you taking in? Because I feel like at that time you had to have been really pulling a lot of beautiful things from Balinese architecture, kind of pulling in a bunch of references that, you know, as we’ll discuss in the future that you kind of made into your own thing.
But what was that phase of your sort of ingestion and inspiration look like?
Bensley: Well, I madly ingested everything Balinese, I became a Balia-file. I read everything that was printed on the subject and Miguel Covarrubias’ books and Collin Fees’ books and the island of Bali and began to speak some Balinese and went everywhere in Bali.
So I just, I just ingested it. But absolutely, I went to hundreds of Balinese temples and understood the idiosyncrasies in between each one, why they were so different.
And then I was also influenced by a man named Geoffrey Bawa, who was a Sri Lankan architect at the time, and he was, in the seventies, he had built perhaps Bali’s, it sounds horrible, but perhaps Bali first suburbia. He built 12 homes on the beach in a place called Batujimbar, which is in Sanur.
And then very fortunately, I was able to meet a man called Frank Morgan, who I’m still very fond of. American, he’s traveled all over the world and he’s about 92 now. And he asked me to do a swimming pool at his place, which led to some work on Adrian Zechas’ house down the road.
And then his brother’s, Allen Zechas, up the road. So I just kept doing these beautiful Geoffrey Bawa houses, which is a wonderful place to start.
Nagy: What was the initial kind of interaction with Adrian like? You know, obviously for those that don’t know, Adrian built Aman Hotels, among many other things, and is widely cited as a visionary and a very interesting person.
But I would love to know the early days, Bensley-Zecha sort of like link up and what those interactions were like as you were as you were young.
Bensley: Well, the, how to say, the early days, Adrian, is, is still and was then the consummate gentleman. He was a very, very polite person that has and had time for everybody, from the gardener to the presidents.
So it was delightful. I worked on his house, which then later became owned by another person, and that’s when I worked on it. But Adrian was the first person I opened my own business to actually send me a congratulatory note, saying best wishes and such. And so that sort of proves what is what a gentleman and what time he had for a young person that I was at the time.
Nagy: It’s amazing. Now as you’re in as you’re working on all these different projects, you know, when were you starting to find your own design vernacular? When were you starting to find the Bill Bensley style that everyone kind of understands from all of your high profile projects? But like, you know, your ingestion phase, your learning phase, but when did you start to have that spark of having things that felt like an idea coming from you?
Bensley: Well, I think probably the first spark was when I worked on, that very first week that I got sent down to Bali, and I went down there to work on Cary Hill’s project, which he was then working for Palmer and Turner out of Hong Kong. There was his project and it was called the Bali Hyatt and that was in Sanur.
And I amongst my traveling, my extensive travels through Bali, I came across a beautiful place that was a 12th century Hindu temple. It was called the Goa Gajah or the Elephant Cave. I fell in love with it, and I did a whole series of sketches of that place and we ended up building it in Java and bringing it into the Bali.
And then at that point, nobody had ever done a giant non fiberglass, the giant real, a real really big sculpture. And we sat it in the middle of a pool and from that point on, my phone didn’t stop ringing because that was the first time that anyone had ever really looked seriously at vernacular architecture in a strictly landscape sense.
So then at one point I was doing seven out of the eight new hotels that were coming up in Jakarta. Because I was so into celebrating the indigenous arts and culture of Indonesia, which hadn’t really been done by then.
Nagy: Which is exciting because sometimes it takes an outside perspective, you know, whether it’s a journalist or whether it’s a designer, to almost tell a community why something is special.
I think sometimes having the outside gaze can be pretty powerful, right?
Bensley: Yeah, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Nagy: That’s interesting. Now, I wanted to talk a little bit about, it’s the talk and it’s the trend about communities and integration, but you’ve been doing this since the beginning of your career in terms of the harmonious integration of local communities, of craft, of that detail into your projects.
And I would just love for you to talk about what sparked that and how it’s part of your operating system now in terms of how you work.
Bensley: Well, I realized right from the right, from the very, you know, that those few early weeks that the thing that was going to make my gardens special was being able to work with these incredibly talented craftsmen that are all throughout Bali, throughout Java, throughout Indonesia and throughout all of Thailand and Southeast Asia. And especially India.
And it was a, how to say, it was a race to try to understand what could be done by each of these craftspeople, and how I could get my clients to actually pay for things, you know, expensive things at the time. Because you’ve got to remember that in the early eighties that landscape architecture really wasn’t known and nobody knew what we did.
And there was only one university in all of Southeast Asia, in all of Asia, one university that was teaching landscape architecture and that was Chulalongkorn University here in Bangkok. So it was a brand new science, if you will. So to be able to tell the general manager of the Bali Hyatt, hey, I need $100,000 in order to build this sculpture in the middle of your swimming pool, you know that was, that was, how to say, it was something new and, and sometimes difficult to get them to buy into it.
But that was perhaps one of my fortes, if you will, was the drawing part. As you can see behind me, I’m sitting in a studio where I draw hundreds of hundreds of images every month. But that was one of my fortes was being able to draw in a convincing manner, to be able to convince that general manager at the Bali Hyatt to be able to put his CapEx into that, into those projects.
Nagy: So even a visionary landscape architect or an interior designer first has to sell the vision. And so you’re drawing was that was the shorthand to kind of be the sales process, so to speak.
Bensley: Right, right. My drawings and my drawings even in the eighties were, sometimes my presentations were 50, 60 meters long. So that too blew everybody’s mind. You know, how can you know, how can they draw such things? We used to use spray paint, and we’d draw by hand, and we use color marker, because of course nothing was done by Photoshop at that point.
We used watercolor and it was real. So I had this atelier of, you know, 50, 60 people in the eighties that would spend all night long for several nights in a row to create these giant murals that were unmistakably, you just couldn’t say no. They were unmistakably convincing.
Nagy: Sure. In terms of the sweat equity, in terms of the love, in terms of the care and the craft that went into them. It’s interesting
Bensley: Right. It’s interesting.
Nagy: Now, when did you make the jump? So you started with the landscape world. Now you’re known for, you know, incredible designs of all sorts of interesting hotels. But when did you expand your vision of what could be done underneath your, you know, your talent?
Bensley:Well, it really wasn’t a jump, but rather as more of a slither.
Nagy: Got it.
Bensley: Yeah. More of a slither into architecture, and we were doing a series of a series of landscaped gardens for an entrepreneur here in Thailand called Bill Heinecke of Minor Group and, and we knew that he was going to be doing a project in Koh Samui and that was the Four Seasons.
So we just, I would say, just showed up at his office and said – without a contract, right? We just said, this is what it should look like. And he said, yes, thank you. Later we negotiated a small fee, but that’s the way I slithered into architecture.
Nagy: And at that point, was that the kind of ascent of Bill Heinecke, like through the early days? Because he’s been such an interesting businessman, but at that stage he was still on the ascent a little bit, but he had the vision to buy what you were selling?
Bensley: Yeah, very much so. Very much. I did the first Anantara which started out as Royal Garden with him, that was the first time. And that’s where we went through the whole name change and I was part of that, from Royal Garden Village, which was a really funky name, to Anantara which was an Aman wannabe sort of name, which everybody was doing in the early nineties at that point.
Nagy: Interesting. I didn’t realize that there was the counterfeit Adrian Zecha hotels, but it makes sense because it seemed like it was working.
Bensley: Right! Yeah. Oh everybody in the early nineties wanted to be an Aman. Everyone went to that Sanskrit name and everyone was opening spars and that was, that was sort of the hot shit thing.
Nagy: Your day job is designing with nuanced, very interesting, inspiring spaces. But I want to understand, you know, where you go for your inspiration. Is it a hotel or is it a place? I would love to understand what feeds you in terms of your own travel?
Bensley: What feeds me is actually doing the absolute opposite of what I do and during my day job. I love to get out into places and find places in the world where man hasn’t screwed it up yet. And one of those places is, the river in Mongolia, which we go to every year for the last ten years.
And we travel through 200, 300 kilometers of river, by boat, by horse, etc.. We’re fishing it along the way. And of course, there’s no cell phone. And we actually have to talk to each other. That I find that is the most refreshing, most inspiring place. And, you know, it ties back to my philosophy and a lot of our work now is in places that are of great natural beauty, right?
And going into a virgin forest and trying to do something like we’re doing now in the Congo, and I look at going into those places as an exercise of how can I build something here that won’t look out of place? it’s really an exercise in mitigating the damage that I’m going to create.
So that ties back to Mongolia and how when I go to places like Mongolia and understand how beautiful Mother Nature is and how perfect she is, it gives me inspiration for trying to build and understand her even better, that makes sense.
Nagy: Yeah, totally. And it’s a good segway to talk about some of your work with Shinta Mani wild. You know I feel like the underlying intent, obviously conservation and the relationship between guests and conservation, but also the architecture. I mean the hotel is basically built to disappear, as I understand it, and it’s fairly harmonious with its environs.
Did you achieve your vision there or is there more to do?
Bensley: No, I think we’ve achieved our vision there, although we do have a couple of projects left to do. But whenever you can get a place to have one 1 tent per 50 acres of land, it’s easy enough to make that tent disappear. So what we did there is a very, very light footprint that just sort of tiptoes onto the under the topography.
And we didn’t change one iota of the ground, we didn’t do any grading, we didn’t do any felling of trees and so forth. And it took quite a long time. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever built because of a number of disasters that happened along the way.
Nagy: Also quite remote as well. You know, I mean, similar to some of the camps in Africa that are pretty far out there. So it’s not like the logistics are easy.
Bensley: No it’s very remote. That was a big problem too. Yeah, we are quite off the grid when we started. And then as in the rest of the world, the population gets closer and closer and so your walls have to go up higher and higher.
And then we were prepared to do this entire project off of solar power. And then I met the Minister of Environment and he within the next month sort of gave us the electricity that we needed, which was wonderful.
Nagy: You know, he talked about how light touch the design was and, you know, we’ve talked about the idea of community.
I also wanted to talk about some of the work you’re doing in terms of building hoteliers and hospitality professionals from people that might not have found that as a profession. Right. How you are working in Cambodia and other places, you know, the hospitality schools and kind of giving people a pathway upwards. I wanted to learn a little bit from you about that.
Bensley: About how that started?
Nagy: Yeah. How it started, how it’s going, how it fills into your hotels and makes something more interesting.
Bensley: Well, my partner in Cambodia, he actually hired me to design a hotel in the area, which is now the Grand Hyatt. Now the Park Hyatt, rather. And when we opened that hotel, we had a little little, he had a guesthouse inside, and such and strictly out of the essential need to have people that were trained to be able to work in hotels.
We had to open a hospitality school to train these kids because there were no other hotels there. So we opened this hospitality school and we had something like 3000 people trying to get into 30 spots.
And then we’ve never had the heart in order to close it down after that. That’s quite hundreds of kids. And what, 15 years later, this December 2nd, we’re hosting the alumni party where it said it’s our 15th year. And so the alumni are going to come back and tell us about where they are now and the new class that’s coming up.
It’s also our graduation of our 15th class. But they’re going to give speeches about, you know, what you can really do. And some of our kids have achieved manager positions both inside and outside of Cambodia, which is fantastic. And some of them are just doing great, and they were in dead end positions where they would have gone off to one of the factories and never been heard from again.
Nagy: I like the notion and I’ve written about this a lot. It’s one of these rare professions that can kind of give geographic mobility and you can build a worldly career, you know, if you’re good. And regardless of how much money you have or where you went to school. So I can’t wait to hear some of these stories about where the alumni have gone off to.
Bensley: Yeah, me too.
Nagy: It’s awesome. Now, I wanted to understand a little bit about, like, future projects. Like what you’re working on, what you’re excited about, you know, stuff that you can obviously talk about that’s not super secret, but things, you know. You have a wider range of interests and projects. But where is the gravitational pull for your interest right now?
Bensley: Well, I’m super excited about these four projects that we’re doing in the tri national park in North French Congo. And that’s it. There’s a difference between the two Congo’s, there is a Belgian Congo and there’s a French Congo. And the French Congo is safe. The Belgian Congo is not so safe. And we are building in what David Attenborough considers to be the world’s last frontier, the world’s last real wilderness.
And Jane Goodall called it the greatest population of chimpanzees in the world, much better than what she studied in Tanzania. And if you watch the BBC production, Our World, David Attenborough actually gets helicopter into this large opening within within the forest canopy, very, very dense forest. It’s millions of years old.
But there’s this place that’s an opening, it’s maybe 200 meters by 150 meters. And it’s a place where salts and minerals are naturally found in the ground. And every day at 5:00, the elephants go there and the gorillas go there to have a cocktail hour of these salts and minerals. And that’s where David Attenborough was explaining all of what was happening there. Well, that’s my site, right? Its the most incredible site in the world to be able to see these elephants and the gorillas. That’s one of our four sites.
And that whole park, of course, it’s getting eroded at the edges by poachers and loggers and such. And that park has, like Shinta Mani Wild, has problems and that can be solved by this very lightweight, almost invisible super high end $4,000 per night tourism to be able to support, as we do in Shinta Mani Wild. Rangers that facilitate catching poachers, etc..
Nagy: And are African parks working on some of that project in terms of the preservation of some of that land, or is it still very early days in terms of the protection with the NGOs and things like that?
Bensley: Up there, yeah, there’s not. The African parks is not there and nor there, nor are there any NGOs or very few NGO Yeah, there that I’ve been introduced to anyways. But it’s a wilderness there that is only occupied by the Baka people. You might know them as the pygmies and to travel with the pygmies, the last time I was on site I was walking 52 kilometers in three days to be able to see all the sites.
And that was only because of the pygmies and following pygmies that I could do that because they know that the forest there, like the back of their hand. There is no signage, the GPS doesn’t work, but it is really a great experience.
Nagy: It’s incredible because you’re putting your hands into people that have such a deep and intuitive understanding of the place that it might be scary for you, but it is kind of strangely safe in a way…
Bensley: You know what, how to say this, is that when I was put in the hands of these beautiful pygmy people and they really are four foot tall, four foot to five foot tall and big smiles. But, you know, we’d be walking along and there was a couple of them speak some English and most of them speak some French, but they would say, you know, Bill, get down, right?
And then, what is it? And I could barely hear anything, but they could say there’s three elephants and there’s two females in there. They’ve got one baby and they’re walking to the north east from us. So just be just quiet. So they could tell just by the way that the leaves are crunching far off, they knew who was out there and what direction she and her family was going.
It was an amazing experience. And this happened with the gorillas, with the chimpanzees, with the bongos. There’s you know, there’s bongos in the Congo yeah. And there the bongos are a very elusive animal. I feel so, how to say, so damn lucky to be able to to be on the ground level of something like this.
Nagy: And also I mean, it’s interesting to witness that extrasensory perception, like with your own eyes, you know, because it shows how unique humans are, I suppose, in a way.
And the last thing I wanted to talk about, because you’re a busy man and have many things to work on, so I don’t want to take up all your time.
But you know, your career has been characterized, and as I understand it, by a little bit of serendipity, a lot of intention, and a lot of passion, but also just kind of following the ebbs and flows of your interests. And I wanted to know, as you talk to young architects, as you talk to new generation of hoteliers, you know, what is the secret sauce? Or what are the things that you would like to impart to the people that are kind of coming up and wanting to make somewhat of a mark on the world?
Bensley: Several things, there really are several things. And one of them is that, especially for architects and designers, interior designers, etc., is to get rid of the hand phone. Yeah. And then, and go and travel but travel without the phone and travel with a sketchbook. And this is something that I have been doing for years and I fill out the sketchbook, you know, that 600 page stick every month and it’s, it’s, it’s so essential, I think, to be able to see something as opposed to snapping a picture.
And then you put it in the file and you never look at it again. If you draw something, you really understand it. And that understanding a form is essential and understanding of scale is essential. So oftentimes I will measure things, I’ll pace things out, I’ll write notes about how big things are, because scale is the key sauce, as you say, to understanding good architecture.
Nagy: I like that because phones are weapons of mass destruction, and also kind of take us a couple steps removed from the thing. And what I love about that, that you just said, is by connecting with a shape and connecting your mind to the scrape of a pen or pencil, you’re almost kind of imbuing a little bit of yourself into the thing which allows for little bit of a deeper connection, which which is exciting to me.
But with that, thank you so much. This was a wide ranging and awesome conversation. We’re super, super happy to have you join us today
Bensley: Well thank you. It’s been a pleasure. Very interesting.
Nagy: It’s been a pleasure. That’s all for us today. Lots of amazing takeaways from Bill Bensley. A huge thanks to him for joining. We have much to come on the future of travel and ideas both on this podcast and future events.
And the aim with this podcast is to celebrate and champion a lot of the ideas that are refining the way we look at the travel industry, whether that’s through design, sustainability, creativity or guest experiences.
So thank you so much for joining us today.
Bensley: Thank you. Bye bye for now.
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