Simplicity, durability, and sustainability – Bert and May’s pillars have helped to renew the narrative around the importance of valuing premium design
Lee Thornley is the Founder and Creative Director of Bert and May, a design-driven lifestyle brand known for its selection of tiles and wood. Thornley emphasizes the use of techniques in the context of today’s cultural challenges, as we all spend more time at home. Thornley’s early observations about the restorative power of design can be traced back to childhood memories of growing up in Blackburn, Lancashire. «My grandparents ran pubs when I was a young boy, and I have memories of trying to convince them to change the design», Thornley recalled. Fast forward to the present day, Thornley writes to us from his new home in North Yorkshire— a soon-to-be-renovated house built in the Sixties—and outlines a picture of life with his family now. Even with his penchant for interior design, Thornley’s recent creative leanings have extended beyond the confines of his usual canvas and into the natural world. «The garden has been my sanctuary. Being creative while being able to be physically active has been a sanity saver».
With this appreciation for nature—and the world around him—Thornley has engaged with design in numerous capacities. In the early 2000s, Thornley’s first foray into the industry began in hospitality. He restored a country house in Cadiz, Spain, that became the renowned luxury boutique hotel, Casa La Siesta. Thornley came to understand how design details can make or break a space. «People enjoy feeling comfortable and relaxed above all else, and while something may look beautiful, hospitality design, like home design, must be practical, too», Thornley explained. «Practical does not mean boring. It just needs to work».Thornley’s hypothesis proved to not only work but ignite his passion for sourcing reclaimed materials and antique fittings while recognizing a white space in the market. With his observations and the success of Casa La Siesta, he began working on the first iteration of his business, focusing primarily on selling reclaimed materials online. In 2010, after meeting the owner of a family business that specialized in creating tiles, Thornley took the next step. Thornley rebranded the company, the owner’s family factory reopened, and Bert and May officially launched in 2013. The brand has grown into a leading destination for artisan-made tiles. It has also attracted a global fanbase and high-profile collaborators like Soho House.
Bert and May’s pillars of simplicity, durability, and sustainability have helped to renew the narrative around the importance of valuing premium design. «We need to convince people that investing in high-quality materials, which will last a lifetime, is the way of creating design», Thornley said. «We need to consider our design choices with longevity in mind and not treat our homes as a seasonal collection of materials». The company’s team includes design staff in London and York, along with production in Spain. While Thornley contends that every team plays a role in bringing the brand’s color and material choices to life, Spain holds significance as the birthplace of the business. Thornley added, «Spain is where so many of the reclaimed tiles have been discovered and continue to be salvaged. It continues to create masses of new design inspiration for our new collections».
To that point, Bert and May’s vision has come to life as a result of their focus on developing colors and finishes. The team draws inspiration from plants, flowers, and trees. «Each tile is made by hand using a metal mold. The maker pours each color into the sections of the mold until the process is complete. It’s a bit like painting by numbers», Thornley explained when asked about the physical creation of each tile. «Once all of the pigment has been poured into the mold, the colors are ‘pressed’ onto a cement backing. They are then placed in water for twenty-four hours and left to dry for one week in the sunshine (not kiln-dried). It’s this long and soft drying process which allows the colors to be softer». Even with Bert and May’s social media presence, Thornley hasn’t let the pressure of the digital age impact his own design preferences. He encourages others to embrace their visual inclinations rather than following online trends. During a period of global tumult, the convergence of individualism and imagination can keep businesses afloat. While there are undertones of the current crises that have impacted industries like design, Thornley remains steadfast in positioning Bert and May as a trusted resource by stewarding conscious creativity (and consumerism). «We all have a responsibility to our planet to stop producing goods that are incapable of lasting the test of time, and good design should last a lifetime» – he explained. «We, the consumers, are the ones who can change this behavior of companies by voting with our feet and stop buying things which we know will not last. By reclaiming so many of our materials, we believe we are promoting design and showing people how these materials will have a place in the right home».
Perusing the photographs in Bert and May’s online tile gallery contextualizes how these materials can transform any environment. Colors and shapes come together in eye-catching backsplashes and hallway floors. Foliage-laden outdoor patios lined with geometric tiles stimulate the senses. Reclaimed wood and terracotta infuse hints of character from bedrooms to living rooms. In many ways, Lee Thornley has achieved his mission of creating design, as well as providing opportunities for people around the world to make their house a home (worth designing). As the world beckons us to appreciate the places and spaces that might have once been overlooked, remember these wise words from Thornley: «Creating a space that reflects you and your family is key. We all need to feel happy and healthy in our homes as they are a part of our identity. Use an interior designer if you’re stuck. But make sure you shout about what you like–and make it yours».IMAGE GALLERY
Bert and May is a bespoke tile design service as well as a collector and distributor of reclaimed tiles and wood. Based in a warehouse in Bethnal Green Bert & May houses some of the most unique materials any architect or designer could wish for. The client base is wide ranging from the interior design industry to architects shop fitters and retail customers. Bert and May designs new product collections as well as design interior spaces using unique materials.