His Raw Materials
Bert & May is a design house that celebrates the beauty of natural materials. 9Fi5th meets Lee Thornley, the man behind this innovative brand.
Bert & May founder Lee Thornley never intended upon a career in design. In fact, this straight-talking Yorkshireman started life as a barrister, a guise that became redundant after he decided to live abroad in the 90s.
“I got very ill and moved to Spain, to take some time out and learn Spanish. I never looked back.” He said, relaxing on the brand’s own barge, moored on the Regent’s Canal outside the Vyner Street showroom. This was the start of a journey that today sees Bert & May established as one of the UK’s most exciting young lifestyle brands, selling to private clients including Sir Paul McCartney, and trade customers such as the Soho House Group. The origins of this success story are rooted back in Andalucía, Spain, where Thornley decided to open a hotel, Casa La Siesta.
“Whilst renovating, we found antique railings, doors, staircases, wood and reclaimed tiles from all over Spain; I fell in love with the materials, the patterns and the colour palette.”
Although enamored with Spanish design, this wasn’t the only thing Thornley fell in love with on his travels, meeting wife Amelia, at the same time. When the hotel opened its doors, guests adored the look and feel, a reaction that cemented the demand for the early Bert & May aesthetic. However it was a relationship with Juan Menacho, the owner of a family firm making encaustic tiles by hand with traditional techniques, that saw the launch of Bert & May proper. Both shared a belief that the future lay in taking inspiration from the past, made with their own modern designs. A deal was struck, and production of Bert & May’s gorgeous tiles began. Organic and tactile, these handmade tiles are available in myriad designs and colours, and act as a blueprint for the Bert & May philosophy. Thornley said: “We are committed to raw materials, natural pigments and fine craftsmanship to create a simple and elegant aesthetic.”
It’s a principle that’s clearly struck a chord with clients. Bert & May started selling tiles, expanded to wooden flooring and are now looking at alternative ways that they can use these materials to create new products. Thornley explained: “We’ve used reclaimed wood for one of our kitchen ranges and our colour palette has inspired the whole collection.” A fabric range inspired by the tile patterns is in the pipeline for September, a look that will be implemented across a new furniture line too. The brand will also be revamping the aforementioned barge in time for London Design Festival in September. Add to this the launch of Bert & May Kitchens and Bert & May Bathrooms, back in May, and you’ll appreciate it’s been an exceptionally busy year. The kitchen collection, in particular, has got London talking. Designed in collaboration with Red Deer Architects, the range comprises of three made-to-order, entirely bespoke kitchens. Bert & May focus on honest materials and simplistic forms, combined with an architectural attention to detail.
“It was really important to us that the kitchens were made in the UK and that each kitchen celebrates the material it is made from. Brass, concrete, marble, and reclaimed and engineered timber are combined to make something raw, exciting, and surprising.” Whilst Thornley is passionate about “genuine, honest pricing,” and keen to impress that Bert & May can find affordable solutions, the best of made-to-measure kitchen design doesn’t come cheap, with a price tag of up to £150k. But with all Bert & May manufacturing and sourcing facilitated within the UK as standard, why should it?
The current wow-factor kitchen project is a house in Highbury, where the island alone is costing a whopping £45k. According to Thornley: “It’s made from a solid piece of bronze, with a cast sink. This is no easy task, but it’s going to look incredible – we’re even matching the exact tone of the brass to the light fittings.” A team effort, Thornley believes in sharing resources – and his address book – to work with the best in the business, rather than assemble a huge in-house team. “We don’t want to be Debenhams and offer everything under then sun. We’re specialists, and we collaborate with great names at the top of their game to offer an enhanced result.” On that note, Bert & May works with Michaelis Boyd architects in Notting Hill (lead designers at Soho House Berlin), and Sussex ironmongery masters Studio Ore, for all things brass and beautiful. This collaborative mentality has also seen the creation of Bert’s Boxes, of the brand’s most innovative and out-there products to date, made in partnership with Box 9. Beautiful pre-fab units, Bert’s Boxes are essentially “posh caravans”, stunning wooden-clad cabins – technically classed as mobile homes – providing space solutions to just about anyone. “Londoners might want to add an extension to make extra space for an office or playroom, or people in the country might like additional accommodation to work as a granny annexe or similar.” The latest Bert’s Box is being used as a pool house, and one has recently been sold to The Pig, a glorious New Forest hotel. To give you an idea of just how luxurious these units can be, the hotel counts its Bert’s Box as its most expensive class of room.
Clearly, Bert & May does luxury very well indeed, but where this brand really excels is in celebrating raw beauty, made with respect to nature and the environment. This mentality is perfectly expressed in Thornley’s dream project. “My ideal would be a self-build, a riverside escape for me and my kids, using Bert & May materials to make the ultimate family bolt-hole.” We’re already dreaming of an invitation to come and visit, but in the meantime we’ll make do with dinner in the showroom, at one of Bert & May’s fabulous monthly supperclubs. The best bit? You’re invited too. Bertandmay.com