Bensley in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll classic inspires designer's Vietnamese JW Marriott resort

For his latest grandiose Southeast Asian resort project, designer Bill Bensley has taken his inspiration from an unlikely combination of themes: the work of pioneering French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the importance of higher education, Lewis Carroll's novel Alice in Wonderland – and mushrooms.

Bensley’s typically whimsical design touches feature throughout the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay resort in the south of Vietnam – a project the designer has described as “perhaps my best.”

The luxury 243-bedroom property is built within the buildings of the 19th century Lamarck University, whose eponymous founder built it to promote study of the natural world. The large complex is formed of many small one- and two-storey buildings centred around the campus’s former main street.

The design team have transformed these buildings – which have not been used since 1943 – into the hotel’s rooms, suites and villas, creating spaces where “every guest feels like they’re staying in their own boutique departmentalised hotel,” according to Bensley.

"The key idea is to break down the scale of a large hotel into a series of smaller ones,” he told CLAD. “I think the idea of re-inhabiting, reusing and reinventing an old university is a cool one, in that almost everyone loved their days in college. It was one’s hay day, and to be able to relive part of that joy on vacation, on a pristine beach, well, that is just totally a new experience for anyone.”

The design concept is focused on the process of learning and discovery and the influence of Lamarck – who laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Hand-painted walls depict flora and fauna, sculptures of animals are present on the buildings, and objects preserved from the university can be seen throughout the hotel.

“It’s paramount that everything we do is totally unique in this very competitive world of hospitality design,” said Bensley. “Creating layers and layers of stories that our guests can live seems to be a clear way forward."

A key component of the resort is the Spa Chanterelle, which features six couple’s treatment rooms, an exclusive body treatment suite, a hair salon and steam and sauna rooms. Located in the university's old physical education department, the design is inspired by mushrooms – which Vietnam’s French colonists long believed to have therapeutic properties, and which residents of Phu Quoc traditionally foraged for in the surrounding jungle.

Mushroom shapes are found in the furnishings and hand-drawn artwork on the walls, and biological illustrations adorn the interior ceilings, adding a surreal quality to the space. References from Alice in Wonderland – in which mushrooms play a key role – also feature heavily. In one corridor, asymmetric arches curve at mirroring angles to create a layering effect, echoing Alice falling down the rabbit hole at the start of the book.

“Mushrooms provide a historically correct fantasy element that seemed to be a perfect match for this spa on Rue de Lamarck,” Bensley said. “I have collected some 20 samples of dried foraged mushrooms and these are on display at the entry to the spa, in a turn of the century French glass and brass shop cabinet. Unique touches like that are important. To coax guests outside of the comfort of our rooms, the spa has to be even more enchanting.

“The references to Alice in Wonderland are also there because the book was published the same year, 1865, as Lamarck University was inaugurated.”

Vietnam’s government continues to encourage investment in the country’s burgeoning tourism industry, and the Emerald Bay resort is one of many large-scale hospitality projects being developed on Phu Quoc’s beaches.

Development company Sun Group, which has funded the JW Marriott property, is overseeing a host of resort and entertainment facilities in the south of the island, reportedly investing as much as VND20tr (US$900m, €855.5m, £723m).

According to state media, the island is expected to earn revenue of US$771m (€733m, £619.4m) through its hospitality services by 2020, when three million tourists are projected to arrive – 40 per cent of whom will be foreign visitors. Last year it welcomed 873,600 visitors, including 151,700 foreigners.

Despite the expected rise in income, environmental campaigners are concerned about the impact of development on the island – part of the Kien Giang UNESCO world biosphere reserve.

Bill Bensley is known for his hospitality projects across Asia, including, most recently, The Four Seasons Jakarta in Indonesia and the St. Regis Langkawi Resort in Malaysia.

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Homely spa design is the future, says Bill Bensley

For his latest grandiose Southeast Asian resort project, designer Bill Bensley has taken his inspiration from an unlikely combination of themes: the work of pioneering French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the importance of higher education, Lewis Carroll's novel Alice in Wonderland – and mushrooms. Bensley’s typically whimsical design touches feature throughout the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay resort in the south of Vietnam – a project the designer has described
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The spa design is inspired by mushrooms – which Vietnam’s French colonists long believed to have therapeutic properties / JW Marriott/Bensley
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