In the business of beautiful tiles

Bert & May is a stunning East London design and interiors studio housing all manner of beautifully decorated, handmade, and naturally sun-baked tiles, produced using traditional methods. A chance meeting in Spain between owners Lee Thornley and Harriet Roberts set them on a path to creating great things. Not only are they passionate about evolving their tile designs and collaborating with up-and-coming designers, they’re keen diversifiers – a new range of kitchens, a supper club, and a mini ‘hotel’ barge, are all recent additions to their business portfolio. Lee Thornley speaks to Khoollect.

A Day in the Life of Lee Thornley

What’s the story behind Bert & May – how did it start and why the fascination with tiles?

I started the tile business after I designed, built and ran a successful hotel in Andalucía. The beautiful encaustic tiles that were used in the hotel build were virtually unknown in the United Kingdom, so I spotted a gap in the market for selling them, and other beautiful reclaimed artefacts, from Spain. The business started as the The Reclaimed Tile Company, and when I met Harriet in 2013 as a guest of the hotel, we joined forces to create Bert & May.

Where do you source your reclaimed tiles?

Mainly in Spain but we also get some of our marble tiles from Italy, and some of our more intricate tile designs from France.

Bert and May 03

What’s your biggest achievement? 

The less flamboyant achievements are the ones that I’m most proud of. Only a few years ago I started this business out of a garage in Yorkshire – now I sit in my office in Yorkshire and look out at the different buildings dotted around the premises, I see my team busily working away, and have a beautiful showroom in London. I feel very proud of what I’ve achieved.

Can you tell us about some of the unconventional uses for tiles that you’ve seen in recent years?

Headboards. This is something people wouldn’t traditionally think of using tiles for, but patterned headboards created out of tiles look absolutely amazing. I’ve also seen some beautiful outdoor benches and stools.

Tell us about your new project – Bert & May Kitchens?

Basically, we’ve created three ranges of Bert & May Kitchens made out of brass, reclaimed timber and painted ply (which comes in a variety of colours from our own paint collection).

For a long time I’ve wanted to create an alternative kitchen company that focuses on the materials used as well as the overall design and function. We created a mini kitchen in our East London showroom out of our reclaimed materials and gave it a very contemporary edge. People who visited the showroom loved it, so I knew there was a market for it.

What’s the aim of this project? 

We’ve employed several young designers to collaborate with us on the kitchens this year. I want to use the kitchens to promote them as well as up-and-coming chefs in the area. East London is a fantastic location to get involved in fun and exciting new food concepts, and we want to be a part of it. Using our kitchens, I want to create a supper club that allows me to mingle with my customers and designers and give them the attention they deserve – show them first-hand how great the kitchens look and function.

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Best Kept Secrets

I khoollect a few …  

Vintage toys for my little girls.

What’s your favourite item in your #khoollection?

The brass kitchen (mentioned above).

Quick and easy go-to recipe?

I’m a one pot wonder man – chorizo, chickpea and tomato stew is a staple in my house!

Who’s your #khoollectcrush?

One of my biggest clients, Nick Jones, is an inspiration to me.

Urban Favourites

Where do you call home and what do you love most about it?

Yorkshire. My kids live there and my new puppy Bertie!

Your favourite place for coffee?

Hackney Bureau – close to where I sleep and someone polite makes it.

Best spot for dinner?

Bistrotheque – lovely simple food done really well

Favourite design/interior boutiques?

Dark Room. Watch out for a Bert & May and Dark Room partnership coming soon.

Your top spots for finding inspiration?

Design Junction.

How do you spend a lazy Sunday?

Sadly I don’t get too many of these! A walk with the dog, time to read the paper and catch up on some Radio 4 podcasts, and I’m a happy man.

If not in London, where would you be?

Spain. I lived there for seven years in a very beautiful and special place, so in a way it’s still home.

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Read about Khoollect’s visit to Bert & May in East London.

Visit the Bert & May website.

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