A ray of sunshine

Bert and May's distinctive hallway tiles.
Bert and May's distinctive hallway tiles.

Interior designers and homeowners can’t get enough of Bert and May’s raw and elegant aesthetic. Sharon Dale talks to its Yorkshire-based founder.

Lee Thornley’s working life has the makings of an inspirational movie. Not only is the story good, the settings are sensational. His business, Bert and May, takes in London, Andalucia and Yorkshire, with the emphasis on fabulous, fashion forward interiors.

Some of the tiles on display in the showroom.

Some of the tiles on display in the showroom.

The opening scene would be London, 2004. Lee, a barrister, had suffered ill-health and decided to leave the capital to live in a warm and sleepy part of Spain that offered a slower pace of life.

He met the woman who would become his wife and they decided to restore a property in Cadiz and turn it into a luxurious boutique hotel.

“That’s when it all took off,” says Lee, 38. “Until then I’d never been involved in design and I realised I really enjoyed it and that other people liked my ideas. Building Casa la Siesta and fitting it out really empowered me. It unleashed a creativity that had been suppressed.”

The reclaimed doors, staircases, wood and tiles that he furnished the hotel with impressed his guests and the designers, fashionistas and photographers who came to stay spread the word. Casa la Siesta made it onto a list of Tatler’s top 100 hotels in the world and entrepreneurial Lee spotted an opportunity to source and sell Spanish architectural salvage to architects and interior designers.

This tiled headboard is a clever Bert and May invention

This tiled headboard is a clever Bert and May invention

What started as an online venture expanded in 2010 when Lee met Juan Menacho, the owner of a small artisan business hand making encaustic 
tiles that were dried in the Spanish sun.

He invested in the business, re-opened the Menacho family’s factory and began designing tiles.

That foray into design and his talent for spotting great makers has led to a very individual and compelling signature look.

“It’s the Bert and May aesthetic. It’s raw, muted and doesn’t look as though it is trying too hard,” says Lee.

Outdoor tiles from Bert and May.

Outdoor tiles from Bert and May.

He branded his business Bert and May in 2013 and opened a showroom in Bethnal Green, London, and a new online store. The Bert and May headquarters and workshops, along with Lee’s main home, are now in Tockwith, near York, and he has set up a sales department in a converted warehouse in Leeds city centre.

“My wife’s mum lives in Yorkshire and I am from Blackburn originally, so it is close to both our families, though I spend two days in London and I visit the hotel and tile business in Spain every few weeks.”

The Andalucian tiles, which now feature a range of patterns from vintage to geometric, still make up 60 per cent of the business and now include glazed tiles made in Stoke on Trent.

Bert and May – Bert is his nickname and May is the sobriquet of the banker who helped him set up the company – also sells engineered, distressed wood for use on walls and floors, its own brand of paints and its own design fabrics.

Kitchen units and worktops, designed by Red Deer, were launched recently, along with a bathroom collection of cast concrete basins, brass taps and showerheads. The brassware is fast becoming a Bert and May best seller.

A simple timber furniture range designed by Jan Hendzel is also popular but a new collaboration has cemented the company’s reputation as purveyors of cool interior design. Lee has created a Bert and May sofa for Sofa.com.

This month also sees him open a second showroom at the upmarket design mecca Chelsea Harbour, while contemplating a foray into lighting design. There are also ambitions to open Bert and May stores in Bristol and Leeds. This ambitious and rapid expansion and diversification of the business is down to what Lee calls his “high risk brain”.

“I have lots of ideas and I like to explore them. One out of four takes off and I’ve learned some expensive lessons along the way but it’s turned out well. I went to university, studied law and never felt like I fitted in, but now I do. Bert and May is my perfect job. I like business, I like being creative and I like making things look good.”