Lee Thornley is the founder of Bert & May and his Yorkshire home reflects the brand’s raw and elegant aesthetic. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Lashings of Farrow and Ball, a large helping of chintz and a country-style kitchen with an Aga would be an obvious and perfectly acceptable starting point when redesigning a Victorian cottage.
But Lee Thornley prefers to take the road less travelled and it has served him well. Having the courage to do something different saw him relinquish a lucrative career as a lawyer, took him to Spain, where he created a hip boutique hotel and led to the launch of Bert & May, now one of the most fashionable and original interiors brands in the UK.
His home in a village near York reveals his preference for a pared-back aesthetic.
“I wanted something different and I didn’t want any chintz, so I went for a stripped-back look,” says Lee.
“It was old fashioned with pink carpets and blown vinyl wallpaper but it has lots of fantastic original features, such as cornicing and sash windows,” he says.
The carpets were ripped out and the original floorboards and woodwork sanded and painted before being topped with rugs from Larusi. The plasterwork in the living room was left exposed and waxed to enhance the patterns made from various cracks and repairs.
The period fireplace now has a modern twist thanks to Bert & May’s best-selling own-design tiles and there is a collection of pre-loved furniture. This includes a mid-century Danish sideboard found on eBay and an armchair from the Decorative Antiques and Textile Fair. There’s also a large coffee table, built by Lee, who topped it with a vintage leather gym mat.
The ugly 1980 extension has been disguised and given character by covering some of the internal walls with a Bert & May speciality: engineered, distressed wood cladding.
The kitchen makeover cost less than £2,000 and was designed by Rory Robertson with the cabinets painted in Bert & May’s Chia oil eggshell and topped with its trademark concrete concrete worktops and sink. Colourful Pesadilla tiles add colour.
The dining room was painted in deep grey with curtains made in Bert & May’s Majadas in Salix fabric. The table is built from reclaimed shutters originally from Lee’s hotel in Cadiz.
Upstairs, the main bedroom has been reborn in dark blue Chia eco emulsion with woodwork in Deadly Night eggshell. A pop of colour is provided by the red chair from a second-hand shop in London.
The bathrooms have also been transformed with new sanitary ware and Bert & May tiles, brass taps and shower heads. The only room that has survived the revamp belongs to Lee’s daughters, Lyla and Iris, who wanted to keep the original floral wallpaper, though he insisted on repainting the wall beneath the dado.
There are other changes he’d like to make but they are on hold as Lee is busier than usual with work. He has just opened a new head office and studio in central Leeds to add to his existing London stores in Bethnal Green and Chelsea Harbour and his online shop. He also has a storage and distribution facility in Tockwith, near York.
“We are a Yorkshire-based business but 90 per cent of our sales and our design work is in the south. That’s one of the reasons for opening a new studio and head office in Leeds. “In time I’d like to go even further north and open in Glasgow,” says Lee, whose business is named after his nickname “Bert”, while May is the sobriquet of the banker who helped him set up the company.
It is a remarkable success story, but it began with a difficult decision.
Blackburn-born Lee was a barrister working in London when he suffered ill health and gave up his job to move to a warm and sleepy part of Spain.
He met his Yorkshire-born wife and they decided to restore a property in Cadiz and turn it into Casa la Siesta, a luxurious boutique hotel. “Until then I’d never been involved in design and I realised I really enjoyed it. It really empowered me and unleashed a creativity that had been suppressed,” he says.
The reclaimed doors, staircases, wood and tiles that he furnished the hotel with impressed his guests and Casa la Siesta made it on to a list of Tatler’s top 100 hotels in the world.
Entrepreneurial Lee spotted the chance to source and sell Spanish architectural salvage. What started as an online venture expanded in 2010 when he invested in an artisan business making encaustic tiles. He designed his own range and a signature look was born. “It’s raw, muted and doesn’t look as though it is trying too hard.”
Bert & May has since branched out into engineered and distressed wood for use on walls and floors, its own brand of paints and fabrics, along with furniture, kitchens, bathrooms, brass taps and showerheads and concrete worktops and basins.
It also has a design service and its increasingly high profile has brought collaborations, including a Bert & May sofa for Sofa.com. It all adds up to a lot of work for Lee, which is why a relaxed and comfortable home is so important, though he is already contemplating a move.
“I get itchy feet and I can see us moving to central York,” he says. “The children go to school there and there are quick rail links to our stores in London.”
Bert & May’s Leeds studio and head office is at Engine House2, Foundry Square, and its online shop is at bertandmay.com