Walk around the quiet village green in Poppleton, just outside York, and you may not notice the new family home of Lee Thornley, creative director and founder of Bert & May. Unassuming from the outside, it makes a graphic but calm first impression that’s very different to the ornate tile patterns his brand first became known for.
The setting, too, is a long way from Andalucia where Lee’s design story began.
Back in 2004, Lee made the trip to that sleepy, sun-soaked part of southern Spain, leaving behind his stressful job as a barrister in London to set up a business selling reclaimed tiles – beautifully intricate designs in bright Mediterranean hues.
Just four years later, he opened Casa La Siesta, his lovingly restored country hotel just 40 minutes from Cadiz, and, in 2010 met Juanma, the owner of a small, family-run local factory making traditional encaustic tiles. This meeting was the catalyst for the Bert & May we know today. Lee and Juanma joined forces, re-purposing the factory to create original, vintage-inspired, handmade tiles.
And Lee hasn’t taken his foot off the creative pedal since then. Bert & May (so named because Lee used to wear a striped jumper that made him look like Liquorice Allsorts’ Bertie Bassett and his then-business partner Harriet Roberts’ nickname was May) has launched numerous collections, as well as collaborations with the likes of Darkroom’s Rhonda Drakeford, Soho Home, The Conran Shop and Anthropologie.
Then there’s the side projects. Bert’s Barge, a narrowboat-turned-boutique hotel moored on the Regent’s Canal near Hackney, and Bert’s Boxes, prefabricated modular garden study rooms, studios and one- or two-bed cabins.
Through all of these adventures, from Spain to east London, Lee has retained a base for both the brand and his family in Yorkshire. Originally from Blackburn in nearby Lancashire, the entrepreneur has a strong connection to the north. His two daughters, Lyla, 11, and Iris, eight, both go to school in York, so when looking for a home he could settle down in with them, his partner Phil, and their two dogs (Poppy the Labrador and Molly the dachshund), there was never any doubt where it would be.
The choice of property itself, however, was clearly a surprise to some. ‘Everybody said we must be mad; that it’s just a bloody ugly house and can never really be made into anything else,’ recalls Lee with a smile.
For him, though, that was the whole point of this challenge. He wanted to show what’s possible when you focus on using beautiful, simple materials well.
A suburban three-bedroom mid-century home, it was, says Lee, ‘exceedingly average’. Not a phrase that would be used to describe it today. An underwhelming lean-to was removed from the back of the home to make way for a double-storey extension that means the three-bedrooms (one of which was little more than a box room before) are now all generously sized and there are two bathrooms rather than one. Downstairs, the addition has made space for the amazing kitchen/dining area/lounge that is the heart of this home.
As well as making changes inside, the garden now contains not just a Bert’s Box studio for Phil’s pottery business, but also a luxurious standalone bedroom and bathroom for the couple. ‘Obviously we are mean parents and don’t want to be near the kids,’ quips Lee.
The whole project took place over the various lockdowns last year, with Lee buying the property in March and living in it for six months before work began in September. There were problems getting hold of materials (as much due to Brexit as the pandemic, notes Lee), but in terms of impact the experience was a surprisingly positive one.
‘We had nothing else to do,’ he explains. ‘I’m convinced that had there not been a pandemic we wouldn’t have been able to have been as obsessive. I’m quite a busy type and all this time on our hands meant we had a real creative focus. I feel really lucky.’
This attention to detail that the situation afforded can be seen throughout the whole home, from the choice of materials – lots of salvaged wood and, of course, tiles – to the colour scheme. Little Greene’s ‘Purple Brown’ sets a warm atmosphere in the snug (‘perfect for playing board games,’ Lee adds), while the deep green in the main bedroom has a ‘sexy, adult’ feel, and the kitchen is all about making the most of the available light.
There’s personality at every turn, but this is a home where the interior speaks softly rather than screams. The concept, explains Lee, was ‘beautiful easy living’. Instead of the bold, bright, often intricately-patterned reclaimed tiles that Bert & May first made its name bringing to the UK, this house showcases a more subtle, sophisticated side to the brand.
There’s a concentration on neutral colours and materials that can be loved for a lifetime. ‘Most people don’t have the luxury of a budget so big that they can install something they may then later go off,’ says Lee. The beige and white tiles from the new ‘Naked’ collection, used to clad his kitchen island, are the perfect example of this new ethos. Modern, but timeless.
And it’s that same thought process that is key to Bert & May’s other recent launches. Elegantly simple terrazzo marble and porcelain tiles were added to the usual encaustic ranges this year, while an upcoming collaboration with Little Greene intends to offer the paint brand’s enticing palette in tile form. There’s even more in the pipeline, too: ‘two new ranges in the next 12 months’, promises Lee, who’s also hoping to open pop-up shops in Manchester and Bristol.
It’s a busy schedule, but if Lee’s neighbours in Poppleton, who have been popping by for a cup of tea and a snoop at what he has been able to achieve in this most unlikely of show spaces, are anything to go by, there will be plenty of people intrigued to see what he has in store. bertandmay.com