It started with reclaimed tiles and has grown to encompass a whole design empire – here’s the story behind Bert & May
How did it all start? In 2008 Bert & May founder Lee Thornley was building Casa la Siesta, a boutique hotel in the rolling hills of the Cádiz countryside in Spain. The reclaimed materials used in its construction and all sourced locally, make it appear centuries old even though it’s not. And it’s thanks to those materials, that Thornley’s salvage business was born. Despite having no formal training, 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.’
But who is he? A trained barrister, Thornley relocated to Spain in 2004 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.’
What was the catalyst to growth? The owner of a local tile factory, Juan Menacho, approached Thornley with a view to selling old stock, which didn’t fit his style. But Thornley, struggling to meet demand with only salvaged examples, proposed that the pair work together to reproduce designs using traditional methods: think liquid cement coloured with natural stone pigment, 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.
Then what? In 2013, Thornley rebranded the 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. He’s also collaborated with designers like Darkroom on fabrics, as well as introducing their own brand collection of British-made fabrics in 11 colours and seven designs, inspired by Bert & May’s best-selling tile patterns. 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.’
Six more things 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 to showcase the brand’s design offerings.
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.