Inside Designer Bill Bensley's Magical Bangkok Home
“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.
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.
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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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.
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.
“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.”
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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