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Homes Inside Designer Bill Bensley's Magical Bangkok Home

Inside Designer Bill Bensley's Magical Bangkok Home

Inside Designer Bill Bensley's Magical Bangkok Home
Photo: Michael Paul
By Michael Paul
February 24, 2020
Designer Bill Bensley and his partner Jirachai Rengthong’s whimsical flair is on display in their Bangkok home, which is festooned with treasures culled from the couple’s far-flung travels

“Beware—you are now entering the maximalist world of Baan Botanica.” This tongue-in-cheek warning etched on the entrance sets the tone for any guest arriving at the zany tropical home of two of Asia’s most vibrant and passionate characters—landscape and hotel designer Bill Bensley and his partner, horticulturist Jirachai Rengthong.

The property is a full-on, high temple to exotica—an idiosyncratic abode that the couple share with five mischievous Jack Russells. Dubbed ‘Baan Botanica’ in homage to the hundreds of different tropical plant species nurtured in the gardens, this is their sanctuary—where Bill and Jirachai escape the craziness of whirlwind work and travel schedules. Located on the outskirts of Bangkok, the house is a cocktail of colour and texture where fun and frivolity mingle with serious antiques and precious art in a joyous, curated clash of cultures. 

Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul

After countless years of globe-trotting, Bill and Jirachai have filled their home with a staggering collection of objects and furniture: Pakistani chests, Afghani window frames, Indian deities and Indonesian doors along with sculptures, textiles and ceramics from every corner of Asia. “We’re incurable collectors,” Bill says. “Our journeys are often spent combing bazaars, souks or flea markets, hunting for bargains or unique objects—not just for our home but the many design projects we undertake.”

An art lover and gifted painter, Bill also values functional, everyday items such as birdcages, chicken baskets or simple pottery—even found objects retrieved from jungles, seashores or fields. “I’m intrigued by nature’s artistry and the nobility found in humble pieces shaped by the caress of time,” he says. Many of these items are displayed around the veranda—the centre of life at Baan Botanica. Here, dinner guests linger late into the evening, sat around the open-air dining table festooned with tapestries of vivid fabrics and brilliant tropical orchids.

 

Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Photo: Michael Paul
Homeowners Bill and Jirachai are colourful characters who are maximalists at heart. Here, they pose on the steps of the Elephant Pavilion at Baan Botanica, a home they share with five Jack Russell terriers (Photo: Michael Paul)
Homeowners Bill and Jirachai are colourful characters who are maximalists at heart. Here, they pose on the steps of the Elephant Pavilion at Baan Botanica, a home they share with five Jack Russell terriers (Photo: Michael Paul)

Secret Garden

The gardens are lush and densely planted with an incredible variety of flora collected from all over Southeast Asia. They flow naturally from style to style—from elegant English courtyard to Balinese water garden—without feeling contrived or offbeat. “That’s the secret—to create intimate rooms within the landscape,” Bill explains. Like the house, the garden embodies an almost cinematic feel—flipping from one vignette to the next. It’s the perfect backdrop for the couple’s legendary parties—such as Bill’s recent birthday bash that was themed around the life-sized pink flamingos they found in Chatuchak market.

Creativity overflows, especially in the garden’s sculptural installations, which include fountains, water features, pavilions, pergolas, gates and pagodas, as well as a guest cottage. “Baan Botanica is a fusion of things that we put together from different cultures and places,” says Jirachai. “The shape of the blue garden gate, for example, comes from Bali. The lion on top of it we saw in Portugal.”

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Two wooden elephants found in Chiang Mai are displayed alongside a bronze statuette—contrasting symbols of strength (Photo: Michael Paul)
Two wooden elephants found in Chiang Mai are displayed alongside a bronze statuette—contrasting symbols of strength (Photo: Michael Paul)
A statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha, bartered for in Bangalore, in the garden pavilion (Photo: Michael Paul)
A statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha, bartered for in Bangalore, in the garden pavilion (Photo: Michael Paul)
A suit of Samurai armour is the focal point in the King and Queen Yellow room, which is swathed in Thai silks and Jim Thomson fabrics. A Burmese tiger statue stands on the table while the shelves are filled with an array of objects sourced from around the globe (Photo: Michael Paul)
A suit of Samurai armour is the focal point in the King and Queen Yellow room, which is swathed in Thai silks and Jim Thomson fabrics. A Burmese tiger statue stands on the table while the shelves are filled with an array of objects sourced from around the globe (Photo: Michael Paul)

It was garden design that first brought Bill to Asia. A graduate of California State University, he won the American Society of Landscape Architects’ highest honour for a student, and was awarded a full fellowship to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Bolstered by the encouragement of his frequent collaborator, Thai architect Lek Bunnag, Bill moved to Asia in the 1980s. He established his own landscape design practice that blossomed into the now-iconic Bensley Design Studios.

Eco-Conscious Luxury

Since the studio was founded in 1989, Bill and his atelier of energetic architects based in Bangkok and Bali have designed some of the world’s most important hotels, resorts, spas and palaces. His extroverted, more-is-more approach that has earned him the title The King of Exotic Luxe. However, eco-sensitivity and conservation has always been his top priority. 

Named after Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet, the Bonnet room features a bed fashioned from an old billiard table and a stack of suitcases found at a Paris flea market (Photo: Michael Paul)
Named after Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet, the Bonnet room features a bed fashioned from an old billiard table and a stack of suitcases found at a Paris flea market (Photo: Michael Paul)
The pair sleep beneath a royal crest that was formerly a five metre-high archway inside the Dutch embassy in Yangon (Photo: Michael Paul)
The pair sleep beneath a royal crest that was formerly a five metre-high archway inside the Dutch embassy in Yangon (Photo: Michael Paul)
Colourful vignettes on the veranda are rearranged every week (Photo: Michael Paul)
Colourful vignettes on the veranda are rearranged every week (Photo: Michael Paul)
A collection of paintings by the Dutch artist Auke Sonnega, from the artist’s time in Indonesia, grace the walls of the master bedroom (Photo: Michael Paul)
A collection of paintings by the Dutch artist Auke Sonnega, from the artist’s time in Indonesia, grace the walls of the master bedroom (Photo: Michael Paul)

“Nothing should be built in sensitive environments,” he says. “I try to mitigate the damage and build with a minimal impact.” Some of his projects include the Siam Bangkok, the Rosewood in Luang Prabang, the St Regis Bali and the Four Seasons in Chang Rai—a glamping resort in the Golden Triangle.

Recently, Bill put his name to the Shinta Mani Bensley Collection, which includes the Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tented camp deep in the jungle that he designed using a small architectural footprint, taking care not to destroy the surrounding natural environment. Bill’s mantra is simple: “We all need to tread lightly on the planet.”

The colonial style veranda features a series of ever-changing pieces styled with an assortment of greenery (Photo: Michael Paul)
The colonial style veranda features a series of ever-changing pieces styled with an assortment of greenery (Photo: Michael Paul)
Objects from Bill and Jirachai’s travels embellish every bit of space, including the tabletop decorated with a coco der mer—the largest seed in the plant kingdom—which they found on a beach in the Seychelles (Photo: Michael Paul)
Objects from Bill and Jirachai’s travels embellish every bit of space, including the tabletop decorated with a coco der mer—the largest seed in the plant kingdom—which they found on a beach in the Seychelles (Photo: Michael Paul)
Hundreds of sports trophies found in Burma are displayed in the master bedroom’s ensuite bathroom (Photo: Michael Paul)
Hundreds of sports trophies found in Burma are displayed in the master bedroom’s ensuite bathroom (Photo: Michael Paul)
The standalone garden kitchen is always brimming with flowers, fruit and fresh produce from nearby markets (Photo: Michael Paul)
The standalone garden kitchen is always brimming with flowers, fruit and fresh produce from nearby markets (Photo: Michael Paul)

With an affinity for art, nature and the exotic, Bill and Jirachai’s travels fuel their creativity. They often return from trips with ideas to re-invent or further embellish the garden and interiors of Baan Botanica.

What’s next on the cards for these two tastemakers? “We’re building a house in Chiang Mai as an escape from Bangkok,” Jirachai says.

One thing’s for sure: it will be just as wonderful as Baan Botanica but built with even more care and sensitivity for the environment. As Bill has often said: “My main purpose in life, besides having as much fun as possible, is to help the needy, animals, and the planet through conservation.”

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Homes Bill Bensley Bangkok Design Designer Travel Home Tour Interior design Beautiful homes Home decor

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