The Aesthete: Bill Bensley talks more personal taste

The architect and designer concludes his list of likes with strenuous Thai massage, running with his dogs and the African/Cuban music of Seckou Keita

Bill Bensley at home in Bangkok
Bill Bensley at home in Bangkok | Image: Adam Birkan Photography

My style icon is the English/Caribbean artist Kate Spencer. She divides her time between St Kitts and Sicily, but she often comes to Bangkok. I love her wild way of dressing – she even paints her own clothes – and her strong, vivacious spirit.

The last thing I bought and loved was my Jack Russell terrier Frank – named after Frank Sinatra. He is my seventh Jack Russell and he’s just enormous. He’s a real swimmer, whether it is in the rivers outside Bangkok, or in our pool.  

Artist Kate Spencer
Artist Kate Spencer | Image: Tina Papies/SceneKitts Photography

The best gift I’ve received recently is the AHEAD Asia 2019 Outstanding Contribution Award for Hospitality and Design. It’s a lifetime achievement award and voted on by my peers, so that feels particularly good.

In my fridge you’ll always find fresh fish, chillies and watermelon. We make a spicy Thai fish soup almost daily, so we always have the first two basic ingredients on hand. The watermelon is for breakfast, and no matter how old I get, it always reminds me of childhood summers.

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The indulgence I would never forgo is strenuous Thai massage. Our masseuse comes to the house every night to give me a rigorous stretch from limb to limb. It’s kind of like forced yoga, but it keeps me healthy.

The last thing I added to my wardrobe was a pair of denim overalls I found in a local market – I like their utilitarian simplicity. I have an upcoming photo shoot and I am going to do the portrait in front of a giant picture of a forest. I plan to be holding an axe, and the overalls will add to the whole Paul Bunyan effect. 

Shinta Mani Wild nature sanctuary in Cambodia
Shinta Mani Wild nature sanctuary in Cambodia

The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Picasso. I love his early works in particular – in fact, I’ll take all the Blue Period. His work is inspirational and dreamy and it certainly plays into my own painting.

An object I would never part with is hard to imagine as I couldn’t care less about possessions – but I would never part with my husband of 30 years. 

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

My favourite room in my house is the veranda because it is the heart of our home. It’s really the magic sweet spot where the beauty of the flowering gardens outside meets the serene interior. We have a table out there that seats six people and it’s just a lovely space, full of orchids, candles and ferns.

If I had to limit my shopping to one neighbourhood in one city, I’d choose Chiang Mai because it is full of all kinds of wonderful stores that sell Burmese, Indian and Chinese antiques. Golden Triangle is one of my favourite places where I buy hundreds of pieces – desks, tables – at a time, and also De-Siam for furniture, decorative objects, carved marble and lighting. I recently bought 400 Indian wooden moulds at this shop. I’m not sure where these will go; I tend to buy first and think later. Prempracha’s Collection is another excellent resource. De-Siam, 132 Moo 1, Chiang Mai-Hod Road, Hang Dong, Chiang Mai 50230 (+6653-441 254; desiam-antiques.com). Golden Triangle, 82 Moo 1 Chiang Mai-Hod Road, A Hang Dong, Chiang Mai 50230 (+6653-434 700; goldentriangle.co.th). Prempracha’s Collection, 224 M3, Chiang Mai-Sankampang Road, T Tonpao, A Sankampang Chiang Mai 50130 (+6653-338 540; prempracha.com).

One of Bensley’s own paintings
One of Bensley’s own paintings | Image: Adam Birkan Photography

The best book I have read in the past year is Kitchen Confidential by the late chef, writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain. He was a seriously talented person and his behind-the-scenes writing about the world of restaurant kitchens is fascinating.

The best gift I’ve given recently was a piece of land to the Cambodian people. It’s roughly the size of Central Park and is an important conservation project. Called Shinta Mani Wild, it is a private nature sanctuary and we’ve built 15 little tents perched over the water that are rented out to help support our sustainability and anti-poaching efforts. From $1,900 per night (minimum three-night stay); shintamani.com/wild.php.

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My failsafe jet lag cure is running – though it must be outside, as sunlight is key. And ideally, three hours of Thai massage to increase my energy flow.

The people I rely on for personal wellbeing are not people, but rather my five dogs. They are the best trainers as they demand a five to 10km run every day around sunset and I take them to the muddy rivers and marshes outside the city. Our cook Tuk, who was my dad’s nurse, also contributes greatly to my overall health. She is our house “mum”.

The last music I downloaded was Senegalese 22 Strings by artist Seckou Keita. This African/Cuban music is hypnotic; sometimes vocal, sometimes with jazz notes. I like Keita’s soothing sounds around the house, especially when I am painting.

The grooming product I’m never without is a generic bar of soap. I literally use it to wash, shampoo, for everything – I don’t groom.

If I weren’t doing what I’m doing, I would be a painter. I just took it up about a year ago and now I am obsessed. It’s much like fishing – I get into a happy, relaxed place when I paint. I love expressing myself through acrylics and watercolours and am particularly focused on large-scale portraiture, which is a difficult subject matter, so I love it the most.

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