Travel memories – Part Deux
Setting my plans to finally return back to Charleston from Asia, I made the decision to leave from Singapore to Seoul, Korea for an Anthony Bordain-style, 48 hours in the city.  After a Google search of “what to do in Seoul”, my last call to Global Alliance was made.  This is a great travel group as they get you the absolute best connections, seats and next available flights.  My agent noted my trip around the world to date and told me she was going to negotiate something fantastic for my return from Seoul to Atlanta, nonstop 21 hours, which she called a “special flight”.

She rang me that afternoon with my itinerary.  She was very excited to tell me I would be in “Level Two, Room Two, Front”.  This sounded interesting, but I had know idea what the 747 upstairs looked like, especially from the pre-9/11 days of simple elegance, inflight cooked meals, and real silverware and glassware. But not the advanced glamour or the new planes they have created.

My late night flight left at 2am local time…The Club Room for Korean Airlines approached Belle Époque, Mid-Century Fabulous.  New money usually spends well with a designer to make first impressions correctly, and this group literally threw money at style and quality.  The food was four-star, beautiful china, glassware, linens, unlimited levels of cocktails and all Western desired wines and liquors. The lighting was like landing in George Jetson’s living room on Hyde Park.  This was the First Class and Business Class lounge; full of east bound passengers, all either jet lagged from Western approach or half asleep having to wake up to go to sleep to awake again, to go asleep.  It’s a train wreck on the mind and body.  Not mine…

“Shaken, not stirred” was my motto for the midnight Asian dream palace where James Bond characters abound.  Indian dress, jet-set Palm Beach blazers with Lilly clad ladies, more Indian dress, and many Asian gentlemen dressed in the “up to the hour” tailored suits of distinction, headed to the US to buy up another company. Tom Ford would have been jealous.

A questionable number of martinis were served to me, along with tasteful graduated meals. This was to move the guests to light meals for your flight vs. a steak and lobster type situation.

I heard a typical Asian Zen bell chime, and my name announced to show myself to the hostess…I thought they were throwing me off the plane after just six martinis!!  But instead, the 18-24 people flying on Level Two were escorted to the plane by a lovely lady with her hair pulled back in “chop sticks”, an aqua and melon silk dress to the floor, more makeup than Vogue could ever imagine – totally breathless.  My small leather bag waIMG_5364s gratefully taken away from me by a male assistant in an all-black suit and aqua silk tie.

There actually is a separate entrance now for First Class passengers as well as a Second Floor on the brand new AIRBUS. An illuminated staircase led us from “downstairs” (Coach and Business) to “upstairs” – note the red velvet rope (Studio 54 comes to mind) to the fun and pleasures of the air. The staircase has motion detector sensors and as you climbed “the stairway to heaven”, the lights would illuminate and change color. Frank Sinatra was singing “Fly Me to the Moon” as I climbed those steps that I will never ever forget.

These planes have not sold exceptionally well as they are so expensive, but to the Middle East and Asia, it’s like “what’s the problem?”  They are mostly bespoke with the luxury of their choice…this was Dorchester in the Sky, Four Seasons, and George V…just pick one.  My seat actually wasn’t a seat, it was an entire room!  My “room” had a large flat screen TV and unlimited movies, internet, leather, walnut, pillow choices – anything that could be imagined but for a roommate!

IMG_5374Cocktails are naturally needed at 2:15am, but Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame is the flavor of this airline to serve in eggshell stemware, and in endless supplies.  My wonderful runway model, aka flight attendant, noted after leveling off, that “if I would like a shower, she would make sure I had an appointment”.  Also, she noted, “have I been to the lounge?” Yikes, I was missing a party?! And it was 10 feet from my cabin! Opening the door, there was a beautiful, low-lit leather clad club room with bottles of everything just sitting around. It was a Betty Ford dream…just sitting there with Frank Sinatra singing in surround sound, and no sounds whatsoever that you are in a plane. Just Frank, cocktails, nibbles, and peace at 40,000 feet.  After about 10 minutes sharing my joy of this surrounding with myself, a man strolled in and said, “Jeeeze…that’s a mob scene…those people are so fun!” Well it turns out the TWO story bar was in the back of the second floor and it was rocking.

My shoes whisked me off to the one-minute run to the party lounge.  To my amazement and to this second, I have never been so impressed.  Massive room for 15 people, stand up bar with full buffet, great piano jazz on the system, attended station with a lady carving tenderloin and making small sandwiches.  And drinks…it really was heaven in the sky.  The windows are quadruple the size of regular planes, and the finishes and the design was really a heart-stopping experience.  As we flew over the North Pole, or thereabouts, there was the “pole party” for the area where we crossed and naturally…more bubbles.  I think about 6am Korea time I sought out my shower.bourbon bar

The “dark liquor “bar downstairs that also had a library of books and mags for reading.  Note the spiral staircase to heaven…Private, all black granite floors and cabinets, hot water, walnut finishes and great towels. Toiletries of names I’ve never heard of but who could care? A large black granite shower in the sky, lit from the ceiling and floor, Heaven was near to me.

Departing this Mecca of pleasure was actually difficult. A million cocktails, three movies, six meals, two showers, two breakfasts, one confused visit to the “other bar” which was the bourbon and scotch bar and for some reason it was not busy.IMG_5389

Arriving in Atlanta 21 hours later, the door opened to reality, and I just wanted to run back to my seat, I mean “room” and have a fresh OJ and eggs over easy. Back to Jet Blue, cramped seats, no service, noise, no shower, no valet for luggage.  Ah, the real world.

This was one of my greatest blessings to have witnessed this flying piece of art and modern luxuries 40,000 feet up. It was one of the highlights of life’s experiences of joy, beauty, style, and luxury in the air.

Sent from Heaven,


A Special Tribute to my inspirational Father who taught me everything I know about colors and textures.
Happy Belated Father’s Day Daddy, I miss you each and every day!

When I moved to Charleston from our family home of York, SC, I discovered the many eccentricities of the Holy City. Naturally, the favorite of “born here” Charlestonians is to ask “where are you from?”. When I answered I was from the small pre-Revolutionary textile town of York, their response usually was……OH, you’re a “lint head”. This phrase was given to those who worked in the textile or garment industry of the upcountry. And yes, my father was a cotton manufacturer .

IMG_1368John Kuykandall Benfield Jr. graduated from Clemson University in December of 1941 on a scholarship. Almost the moment he finished his four year study of textile chemistry, he was off to war in the Far East. He joined a special military group called the Merrill’s Marauders. Their secret mission was to go behind the China Burma lines. Captain Benfield and his men went through horrors that could not be depicted in the movies. However, there were several books written about this special military group; over 3000 men started the battle, a few hundred completed it. The suicide mission was finally over in 1945.

When “Jack” returned from this war, he was battle scarred, but ready to put life in America to full advantage in the post war boom. Using his degree from Clemson, and his 6’2″ Southern Charm, he landed a desired position with a textile company on Wheat Sheaf Lane in Philadelphia, PA that made Narrow Fabrics – items under 12″ that could be made on a broad loom. He was hooked into his new life of textiles.

When my father took the Southern Cresent train from Philadelphia to Rock Hill, SC, he noted a slogan painted on the side of the trains that said “Look Ahead…Look South”. This changed his entire life. Post war had not been good to the rural deep South, and I mean the Civil War. Even though it had not been physically destroyed by Sherman’s armies, the economy was non exisitent. Poor farmers and small businesses and a few, small textile mills were barely making it. He returned to Philadelphia and the owner of the mills showed him how he could create a new and successful market in the South. It worked, and the journey began… Soon my Father convinced his now business partner to move all manufacturing to the South. That’s when I showed up on the scene – his youngest child, and the one that would be at his side enjoying this fascinating world of fabric, manufacturing color and process of creation.

When I was about 6, my father was at his desk in a very depressed mood. I asked several times what was the matter and he could not answer me. Finally he caught a moment and patiently explained that “there are 110 shades of white that we sell, and we just made two million yards of the wrong shade of white!”. It was at that moment that my lesson in color began. I would grab a bottle of coke and walk the 200,000 sf building watching each machine and its process – the shuttles and the looms, the bales of raw cotton, the dye rooms for color mixing, the twisting of the cotton, and especially how that massive 40′ loom could make this wonderful weave and trim. He knew that I was the successor of the mills and his creation.

My father eventually bought the business and spread the company out to three mills in New York, Phildelphia and the large manufacturing plant in York. He expanded into a new world of elastic in the late 60’s and captured the exclusive contract of making the elastic banding for BVD and Hanes hosiery. This had to be made in three special looms, that made a young man’s eye glue to the needles and looms working in unison. Then they landed the contract to make all the seat belts for GM and their many divisions of the time. Though it was a lucrative project, the color palette he had to work with made for additional stress and color management. For the first time I discovered “light and dark” of colors…the weave, the shading, the blend of how the material was woven to get the correct final finish.

I believe it was the GM contracts that kept me up late at night when my father was hammering out some issue in his front office. Metallic material was brought in to embellish some of the high-end series cars. To walk out and see the tens of thousands of yards of electric blue nylon and high sheen silver metallic material being made into seat trim was magic.

Speaking of cars, my father disliked any car that did not serve some function. He only bought Pontiac wagons from Paul’s Pontiac in Chester, SC. HeIMG_1378 never even looked at them; he just ordered it over the phone . Blue, blue interior, no options but for air and am radio. Now working for him in (non air conditioned) mills, I saw my father a great deal more. He told me at lunch one day he had just ordered a new wagon and with my exposures to colors and weaves, I begged him to select the “color on loom 114 and the trim over in the broadloom department”! This was not going to happen with him. However, I called from the company phone and requested to speak to the sales manager to make an adjustment of “dark green metallic and the tan interior…..also put leather, stereo and power windows…toss in white walls and sports wheel covers”. They agreed, and it was ordered.

I actually do not recall exactly what happened when he came home in the car, but it was not pleasant. It took him several days to finally say that he “loved” the radio and ALL those speakers…and the electric windows (fancy in 1973) were his favorite. My life was spared over color and change..and patience.

In 1975 , my father asked me would I consider being groomed for taking over the mills that he had created. I recall my response was that the manufacturing process was fascinating and the color and texture were my passion, but the mills themselves were too much to handle in my life . In 1976, I was called back from overseas travel to find out that my father had pancreatic cancer and we had him for a short six months after the diagnosis.

On this Fathers day, I still recall his soft and gentle voice, taking my small hands to explain feel, finish, color and especially that there really are “110 shades of white”.

Merrill at 17As a teenager one of my favorite films was Great Gatsby. I watched it countless times which may have advanced my maturation process by ten years. When Jay tossed his multicolored French cuffed shirts on the bed for Daisy to admire, I was sold on Fifty Shades of Pink…..! (This was 1974 when hippies and Mad Men were not merging well). My father was in the textile industry and allowed me, once every other year, to get a suit and a few shirts made by his Hong Kong based tailor. When Gatsby came out, I knew I had to have two things before my 16th birthday:

A) A vintage Rolls Royce
B) Robert Redford’s 3-piece Irish linen winter white suit and lots of pastel shirts

I accomplished “B” quickly. “A” took two years. Finally my father took me to Sam’s Tailor in New York and we got to work on my dream wardrobe. I pulled out my GQ magazine and noted my requests and the quality of shirts. He allowed me to order the exact suit from the photo and four shirts in exquisite fabrics of pinks and powder blues.
Can you believe it?!

IMG_535341 years later, I am fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong and find Sam’s tailor shop down an alley in the middle of Kowloon, slivered in the street with a few million people. It’s really smaller than my drawing room in Charleston, but the bees hummed and the tailors tailored and the fabrics were a candy land of a designer’s passion of elegance and selection. After India, my interest fell back to the bright finishes and textures of solid cottons and stripes. So much is re‐introduced from decades ago and back in vogue, but style is always in style! The two President Bushes and Clinton had their clothes made by Sam’s Tailor along with hundreds of other famous folks. In fact, I noticed a photo in Sam’s dressing room of Churchill having his girth swaddled in Italian wool and Chinese silks, taking him onward and upward in style.

After selecting a knock off of Tom Ford’s blue silk tux with striped silk lining, they started to write up my order and asked if I was a returning client. I shared the story about New York and the beautiful clothing I had purchased several decades ago. The kind gentleman helping me left for a moment then delivered a chilled local beer and asked for me to wait. He returned with a worn, yellowed note card with the name John Kuykandall Benfield, Jr. for son, Merrill IMG_0793A. Benfield. I couldn’t believe it, they still had my account number on file after all these years from my father’s original order for my 16th birthday! When my tux was ready for fitting SIX hours later, the man noted that my information would be updated on the account and my personal number added after my father’s passing. The next day my faux Tom Ford tux was ready, my 41‐ year‐ old number stitched inside my jacket (As only Sam’s does), and off I went to Jamaica for the Sugar Cane Ball with grand memories and my hand‐tailored tux. The value of the bespoke suit is they really create a private masterpiece that understands “your body”… And prices are very fair over the price of rack clothing, thus great value. MY CREDO is always “spend well, once!”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. One more travel installment to come, stay tuned… this one will be the best yet!
Sent from Heaven,

Over the school loudspeaker (we’re talking 1962 high-tech), the broadcast would come…”Merrill, come to the principal’s office now!” Not always a good omen, but fortunately most of the time it was my mother waiting for me in the office. Bebe, as my mother was affectionately known, had a penchant for pulling me out of school often, just like Auntie Mame, it was her way of “dealing” with life. She would tell the school principal she had a family matter to attend to…The family matter was shopping for plunder for the Kennedy White House .

Bebe had a style and elegance she inherited from her mother that flowed with classical ease.  Along with various other textile manufacturers in and around the South, she was on the fundraising and acquisitions committee for the Kennedy White House. Dressed in her Montaldo or Chanel, a pill box hat, kid gloves, and an oyster colored ostrich bag and matching shoes, she would toss my books in the back of her custom-ordered blue Imperial with silver leather seats and jet set off to wherever there were items to investigate.

With all her style, she was never afraid to seek out a tiny town in Virginia or North Carolina to inspect a piece that may be suitable. Dressed to the nines, she would rough it through warehouses and dusty shops, and with her Georgia manners and voice, seduce the owner into either giving the item to the project or making a grand price for purchase. This could go on for days or even a week.  When it came to me, she always said “Schools have books and they can be read anytime!”-Auntie Mame’s motto.

We were best friends and I was the sponge to any culture that she openly and patiently exposed to me.  Fabrics, antiques, wood, period design and most importantly understanding style. Our shopping trips continued even after I started  my design business at the age of 21.  She would go with me to many locations and help shove a chest in a van, haul an oversize box or give me her seasoned opinion. We had a blessed life together and she truly gave me all I know today in so many ways .

I love you and miss you Mom,
Happy Mother’s Day

My first inspiration to get out and learn was from my father.  At a very young age, he practiced the IBM method of MBWA..or Management By Walking Around.  My modification of this lesson he taught me was my own practice of DBT…or Design By Travel.

I do not recall having a single amazing idea arrive in my mind by sitting at a desk.  It has always been by exposure of something different that sparked a concept, plan or design.

My Trips Around the World Begin….

After ending the retail division of my interior design business, I felt it was time to take a few years off and expose my senses to anything and everything that was foreign to my present designs.  The result, in a word, was exceptional.

I began my around the world adventure in New York for the American feeling, there I connected with fellow designers, hit hot spots and caught the season’s fresh plays, including box seats for “It’s Only a Play” with famed designer and friend Eric Cohler. With his very talented eye and present projects, we both agreed that the “rules of design are now that there are no rules”. A stop in London was a return to my childhood passions of any and all things British and old school.  This was a nostalgic time for me as my love of “brown wood” and classic Georgian design and style still makes my heart skip a beat. taj

Next stop, Paris, which always pushes my decorative buttons for some gold, a little over the top console and grand silks. The architecture, of course, can make anyone’s champagne cork pop, but India was the crayon box of every button in a soul that could be pushed.  I was invited on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with ten people from around the world for an intimate three weeks to touch and feel “India”.  As a designer, it ripped so many parts of what I “dislike” into what I “like” allowing me to see what could work for my clients, and modify the scale of the country and its colors, feelings and culture, into a home. The highlight… ringing in the New Year at the Taj Mahal where my Dad convalesced during WWII.  This unforgettable leg of my trip yielded volumes of notes (many on cocktail napkins) and photos that followed me home to compress for the coming years.

I was having so much fun I decided to stay a little longer, so while in India, with an open ended ticket, why not take a cruise?  My travel agent suggested several mega ships of impeccable luxury, saddled alongside three thousand of my closest friends, all headed to the same port alongside other masses of people seeking luxury and relaxation in the same port. Fortunately, an elegant couple I know in Martha’s Vineyard suggested a small sailing yacht for only a small number of people. It was a limited venue, especially in January and February in Asia, where the weather is still very pleasant and the bugs do not appear to have reached puberty so as to remove all your blood in one breath!  Lucky me, this sailing yacht had two rooms left with a great singles rate.

This is the way to go:  80 passengers, 90 crew, massive suites with marble tubs, mahogany walk-in closets, and impeccable decor up to date by the moment, and very relaxed dress code.  I walked from my hotel four blocks to the yacht with my two small bags and started my sail up from Saigon to Hong Kong… taking two  leisurely weeks . Being a large yacht, but small compared to the mega ships, we could sail right up to ports in small cities or even Hanoi.  This allowed me to run down to our dining room and grab a lunch on the rear deck or  freshen up before seeing more of a village or city ….either way, the adventure, the leisurely pace of the ship, and my water route of circumnavigating the globe was a very beautiful thing!

vietnam2As amazing as it was, my sailing venture down the coast of Vietnam is not the end of the story, but sadly, I must go as it’s time for cocktails at the Kit Kat Club, more on that later… and much more on my trip in my next blog. You won’t believe how I got home! Stay tuned.

Sent from Heaven,