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Bill Bensley

Project - JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, Vietnam


For his latest Southeast Asian resort project, designer Bill Bensley has taken inspiration from an unlikely combination of themes: the work of pioneering French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the importance of higher education, Lewis Carroll’s 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-room property is in the grounds of the 19th-century Lamarck University. The eponymous founder built the university to further the study of the natural world. The large complex is formed of many small, one- and two-storey buildings centred around a main street.

The buildings – which have not been used since 1943 – have been transformed into the hotel’s suites and villas, where, Bensley says, “every guest feels as though they’re in their own boutique, departmentalised hotel.”

“The key idea is to break down the scale of a large hotel into a series of smaller ones,” he told CLAD. “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 heyday, and to be able to re-live part of that joy on vacation, on a pristine beach, well, that is just totally a new experience.”

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 in the buildings, and objects preserved from the university can be seen throughout the hotel.

“In this very competitive world of hospitality design it’s paramount that everything we do is original,” said Bensley. “Creating layers and layers of stories that our guests can live seems a clear way forward.”

A key component of the resort is the Spa Chanterelle, with six couple’s treatment rooms, a body treatment suite, a hair salon and steamrooms and saunas. Located in the university’s old physical education department, the design is inspired by mushrooms – which Vietnam’s French colonists believed have therapeutic properties, and which residents of Phu Quoc traditionally foraged from the jungle.

Mushroom shapes are found in the furnishings and stencilled artwork on the walls, and botanical illustrations adorn the ceilings, adding a surreal quality. References from Alice in Wonderland also feature heavily. In one corridor, asymmetric arches curve at angles to create a layering effect, echoing Alice's fall down the rabbit hole.

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

“The references to Alice in Wonderland are there because the book was published in 1865, the year the university was inaugurated.”

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Company profile: TLEE Spas + Wellness
Having designed and managed some of the most renowned spas in the world, Tracy has carved out a reputation of steady leadership and innovation recognised throughout the industry.
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