It started with reclaimed tiles and has grown to encompass a whole design empire – here’s the story behind this brilliant British brand
It took a year of planning and another of building work before Casa la Siesta, the boutique hotel belonging to Bert & May founder Lee Thornley, was complete. The property, which sits among the rolling hills of the Cádiz countryside in Spain, was built in 2008, although the abundance of reclaimed materials used in its construction make it appear centuries old.
It was thanks to those materials, sourced from across the region, that Thornley’s salvage business was born. A trained barrister, he relocated in 2004 in order to learn Spanish, ending up in the sleepy town of Vejer, where he renovated an apartment before buying land to build the hotel. ‘I thought I’d be in Spain for four weeks’ says Thornley. ‘But I didn’t go back to London for six years.’
Despite Thornley having no formal training, the project was a huge success, so he launched an online reclamation company specialising in ornate tiles. ‘Once the hotel was built it became apparent that there was a demand for that aesthetic,’ he says. ‘I used to sell everything – doors, marble, stone – but it was tricky. The great thing about tiles is that you can send out samples.’
During that time, the owner of a local tile factory, Juan Menacho, approached Thornley with a view to selling old stock, which didn’t fit his style. However, as Thornley was struggling to meet demand with only salvaged examples, the pair decided to work together reproducing designs using traditional methods. At Menacho’s recently expanded factory, liquid cement coloured with natural stone pigment is poured into metal moulds, then compacted using hand-operated presses. Due to the skilled nature of the job each craftsman makes between three and five square metres of tiles per day, or as little as one square metre for more complex designs.
In 2013, Thornley rebranded his company as Bert & May and moved back to the UK, where he opened his London showroom in 2014. Since then it has grown into a lifestyle brand, offering not only its signature tiles but reclaimed and engineered wood flooring, bathrooms and kitchens, as well as natural pigment paints inspired by the colours in the tile collection.
New for autumn 2016 are fabrics and tiles designed in conjunction with independent London label Darkroom. Featuring the latter’s signature geometric patterns and monochrome palette with a flash of blue, the bold tiles can be laid in a structured pattern or more random arrangements. ‘I’m keen to collaborate more with other designers,’ says Thornley. Also new are a core collection of British-made fabrics in 11 colours and seven designs, inspired by Bert & May’s best-selling tile patterns. Both will launch at this September’s London Design Festival. A range of rugs, a lifestyle shop and a larger offering of reclaimed pieces are also in the pipeline. ‘Ultimately I’d like anyone to be able to come in and buy something from Bert & May – be that a bronze kitchen island for £20,000 or a pair of salvaged taps for £100.’ (bertandmay.com; casalasiesta.com).
Six things you need to know about
Bert & May
1. Bert & May’s first big client was Soho House, which requested 87 million reclaimed tiles. Only eight individual tiles were available so, loath to let down an important customer, it was then that Thornley decided to make his own.
2. Thornley’s nickname, Bert, came from a black-and-white striped jumper that made him look like Liquorice Allsorts mascot Bertie Bassett. His then business partner’s nickname was May, so that’s how the company got its name.
3. Now based in Yorkshire, Thornley found himself with nowhere to stay when working at the Regent’s Canal showroom. He decided to build Bert’s Barge, both to live on and also to showcase the brand’s design offerings. For the London Design Festival 2016, the barge (available to rent from £250 per night) will be redesigned using the new Bert & May x Darkroom fabrics and tiles (bertsbarges.com).
4. In 2016 Bert & May launched a range of kitchens in collaboration with Red Deer Architects, made using materials such as concrete, aged brass, marble and engineered wood.
5. Also available are bathroom fittings designed by Studio Ore, which include solid, unlacquered brass taps and showerheads and concrete basins in 28 colours, all made to order in Nottingham.
6. Another part of the expanding empire are Bert’s Boxes: pre-fabricated modular living spaces built in conjunction with Box 9 Design and kitted out with Bert & May finishes. From £25,000 for a ‘Teeny Box’, perfect as an outdoor office (bertandmayspaces.com).
Words: Claudia Baillie