SOME partnerships are made in heaven, some are sealed in dating agencies and still others are forged by fighting over who gets to buy the Chinese opium daybed or century-old first-edition hardback books at their favourite antique stores and flea markets.
Bill Bensley and Krissada Sukosol-Clapp are not romantic partners, but it was their uncannily similar taste in antiques that brought one of Architectural Digest's "top 100 Resort Architects" and the Thai rock star-turned hotelier together to create The Siam - Bangkok's latest uber-luxury hotel resort in the historic Dusit district.
Already, the elegant black and white, suite-and-villa property with its tropical old-world glamour vibe is fast climbing the ranks on the hipster traveller's must-do list - although with rates starting from S$650 to almost S$2,000 a night, only high-net-worth folk need apply.
Much of the buzz centres on Sukosol-Clapp's mind-boggling antique collection - ranging from museum-worthy neolithic Thai pottery and priceless Tang dynasty figurines to vintage French cinema seats and sepia-toned photos of Muay Thai boxers duking it out in the 1940s or 1950s - that fuse seamlessly with Bensley's eloquent monochrome interiors.
As he tells it, the antique fanatic Sukosol-Clapp first got to know of Bensley as his competition at antique stores and auctions. "I used to get a little ticked off when I would see Bill's name on many of the antiques I wanted. He'd buy them for himself and for his many other projects. So I thought, "If you can't beat 'em then might as well join 'em!'"
It transpired that Bensley felt a mutual "animosity" towards the guy who kept beating him to the punch on the antique trail. So when The Siam project came about and Sukosol-Clapp was looking for an architect with a similar mindset, the answer was a no-brainer - not only did he get a designer, he got a shopping partner who didn't fight with him over stuff anymore.
Hotel with a soul
Sukosol-Clapp, 42, describes the inspiration of The Siam as "Rama V colonial influence merged with contemporary art deco steel and glass", with a bit of the D'orsay Museum in Paris thrown in. In converting the three acre piece of land facing the Chao Phraya river, "Ben and I were like a director and actor bouncing off ideas to make the best picture." Sure, they had their disagreements, but they had the common goal of creating not just another addition to add to Bangkok's already crowded luxury hotel scene, but a home with a soul.
That's why when you enter the lobby, you don't feel like you're in a hotel - the reception desk is tucked away in a corner of a vast courtyard space with just planters, water features and ceiling-high shrubbery creating an artfully landscaped green oasis.
There are just 39 rooms - not so much rooms but suites and individual villas with private pools all decorated according to themes and Sukosol-Clapp's antique inventory. Rather than stick them in glass cases like static displays with no relation to their surroundings, the antiques are the lifeblood of the property bringing a sense of identity to every space.
"For example," says Sukosol-Clapp, "we decided to build a proper screening room because of the Parisian theatre seats I'd bought years ago, as well as a 1930s Zeiss film projector from Germany, and my collection of 1950s Thai theatre tickets. Likewise, I'd told Jason (Friedman, the general manager) that I also collect Thai boxing memorabilia and it was actually his idea to put in a boxing ring in our gym! Of course, Bill loved it and so we became the only hotel in Thailand with a stage for Thai boxing."
That's not all. On the premises is a fully re-assembled teak house that used to belong to legendary silk merchant Jim Thompson - the former American spy who mysteriously disappeared in 1967. The century-old dwelling was built by Thompson specially for his best friend and fellow ex-spy/socialite Connie Mangskau, who was the last person to see him alive.
She used it as a weekend retreat until it became too difficult for her to maintain, so she sold it off to her good friend Khun Pornsri who was the head of public relations at the iconic Oriental hotel.
But it proved too much for her too, so Khun Pornsri sold it to the Sukosol family knowing that it would be well taken care of. The structure was restored and moved to the hotel site where it now sits proudly as the in-house Thai restaurant, Chon.
It's clear that The Siam is more a labour of love than a bean-counting luxury hotel where profit per sq ft ratio is calculated from the moment the floor plans are drawn up. It helped, of course, that the land it's sitting on has been in Sukosol-Clapp's family for decades.
His mother, Kamala Sukosol, presides over a business empire built by her father who brought General Electric and Mazda cars to Thailand. The family also owns the Sukosol hotel group, which includes The Sukosol - its downtown property formerly known as the Siam City Hotel which caters more for mainstream leisure and business travellers who want to be closer to the shopping and commercial action in Bangkok. Matriarch Kamala wanted The Siam to be a project that brought together all four of her children - Sukosol-Clapp is her youngest - and what started out as a small, 400 to 500 million baht (S$16.2million to $20million) affair ballooned into a six-year, 1 billion baht experience.
As she put it, "Let's just say it got out of hand, but in a good way."
Sukosol-Clapp, who is married with two children, concedes that The Siam's location is a challenging one. It's a 40 minute boat ride to the nearest subway station, and another half hour to get to town.
Sense of history
Given Bangkok's notorious traffic, that's the most feasible way of getting around if you don't want to depend on unco-operative taxi drivers who either refuse to take you or demand a hefty surcharge.
"It's in the historic Dusit district and even Bangkokians don't frequent the area. But to me that gave it mystique - and a true sense of history. To get there meant it had to truly be special and like no other. That's why it became an urban resort - a quiet retreat, and it had to be self-contained with every facility you'd expect in a luxurious resort. But at the same time, you'd have to feel like you're a guest walking into someone's home, not a hotel. Like you're stepping back in time to the age when we were once 'Siam'.
"The only way for this to work was for the hotel to feel timeless. I'm not saying we're there yet. We're building a home here, and it takes time to become timeless. I'll do my best to get there."
The Siam, Thanon Khao, Vachirapayabal,Dusit,Bangkok, 10300 www.thesiamhotel.com