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Profile: Bert & May

Founder Lee Thornley gives us an insight into his passion for raw materials and pigments
   EKBB Magazine  |  written on: 09-01-2022 17:20pm

Founded by Lee Thornley, Bert & May started life as a reclaimed tile company. The key was discovering and sourcing beautiful old materials and incorporating them into luxury interior design. In September 2014, Bert & May opened its first London showroom and retail space in Bethnal Green, East London. Since then, the company has grown and expanded its range to include bespoke kitchens and bathrooms as well as ceramics, furniture and paint.

- What first sparked your interest in interior design and inspired you to set up Bert & May?
I think what really sparked my desire to get into the business was a feeling that there was a gap in the market for simple, raw materials. So, having built my boutique hotel in Spain (Casa La Siesta in Andalucia) in 2008, and doing that without any formal interior design training, I realised that my passion was for a stripped-back look using beautiful materials. I think it was the realisation that there was a demand for this rather than over-designed pieces that inspired me – and long may this continue.

- How would you describe the Bert & May aesthetic and how has this evolved?
The essential DNA is the same. I suppose the way it has changed is that previously it was about sourcing a beautiful piece of wood or marble or tiles that people would love, as opposed to now when we understand that the reason why we’re so interested in these comes down to the raw materials. We’ve also had the opportunity to celebrate more materials that we’ve never experimented with before. For example, our aged brass kitchen allowed us to develop and research various ageing methods – different ways you can brush it to give distinct effects. Whereas the original part of the business was to salvage beautiful things, now it’s building on this and also considering the possibilities that new materials can create too.

- Where do you find design inspiration?
What I do more than anything is try to research pigments because inspiration for patterns and other designs can be found in a lot of places and from so many antique designs. For example, you can look at different tile designs and get a fantastic amount of equity from the designs and then go ahead and reinterpret them. So, I spend a lot of my time looking at different quarries to try and find the next really lovely blue pigments, for example, which we can then use in our designs. We don’t use any synthetic colours and that’s something that people don’t often understand about us. We might have to resource the mineral from the quarry which means the blue in each design will be slightly different. My biggest challenge is colour and now probably 75 per cent of my time is spent on collaborative work, so my inspiration tends to come from the people I work with. The best thing about Bert & May for me has been opening up my opportunity of contacts and friends that I can now work with.

- How important do you think sustainability is in design?
I think it’s hugely important and I find myself often advising clients not to buy something if they don’t really love it and if it’s just going to be temporary. The one thing that I really do believe in is getting some core materials and getting the foundations of your building really beautiful – invest in that and you’ll never regret it. Decoration is different because we all want to update our soft furnishings occasionally, but with the core of the building you shouldn’t make any crazy decisions. We all just need to take more time and only invest in things that we genuinely believe in and love. More than anything we are a natural pigment company because we don’t offer synthetic colours or colour matching. Our inspiration for the paints came from our natural pigments in tiles and it creates this very matt chalky look which is the Bert & May aesthetic.

- You’ve explored the concept of kitchen and living spaces with your projects, including the barge (Bert’s Barges). How do you believe that function, style and luxury can be combined?
I believe luxury is in the eye of the beholder and for me, it’s difficult to define but I think it’s about beautiful materials that age and become more beautiful over time. In terms of design, one thing I’ve learnt is that unless something works for the way you live then it’s wholly pointless and therefore not luxurious or fit for purpose. For example, my barge represents exactly how I want to live in London – it’s a big, bright space with a small bedroom, a slightly oversized bathroom and a roof terrace with antique tiles. This is what feels luxurious to me because it fits my city lifestyle. My advice would be to define who you are first and make it work for you.

beach, boat, nautical, bed, bedroom, blue, rustic, rough, rugged, wood, wooden, boards, Bert & May

- How did your collaboration with Red Deer come about?
They’re a young group of architects who were originally clients of mine. They’ve brought both elegance and really proud simplicity to the kitchens we’ve worked on. They have the expertise and really understand design because they are always living and breathing it. I think what we aim to do as a business is to not always design everything in-house, instead we go to the best people to do it. This is the main reason why we collaborated with Red Deer for our kitchens. The three ranges are made from reclaimed timber, painted plywood and aged brass and the new doors to be introduced are concrete. Concrete and wood are very practical materials and all of our carcasses are made from ply but they’re all hand-jointed with fine detailing in the design.

- Can you elaborate on your venture into bathroom design?
The bathrooms are a really different aesthetic for Bert & May. I’m very excited because it’s unlike anything we’ve done before and it’s almost given us a whole new angle. All the tiles are still handmade using natural pigments but at the same time the look is entirely different – it’s really slick and plain. We’ve developed a small collection of solid brass taps and showers which are all made in the UK. The brass ages beautifully so it comes back to my original point that it’s the material itself that’s really the shouting factor. Yes, the craftsmanship is there because they feel expensive and good quality to touch, but ultimately, it’s the fact that we’re celebrating this amazing material. We also have two concrete basins; one is a really masculine double basin and the other one is a round smaller basin. Set against our plain glazed tiles made in Stoke on Trent and our brass fittings they look lovely and simple but beautiful too.

Credit: Emma Foale (Words)
Published: As featured in EKBB Magazine, Issue 243, July 2016

Also read:
Profile: Tom Dixon
Profile: Marcel Wanders

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