The Bert & May Story: Our Love for reclaimed tiles
By Victoria Smith
Nov 25, 2020
2020 marks seven years since the launch of Bert & May, but our roots go back a little further than that... To mark the relaunch of our News page, we’d like to reintroduce you to our story and take a look back at the reclaimed finds that inspired it all.
While we’re proudly based in York, the Bert & May story actually started in Spain in 2004, then founder Lee Thornley relocated from London to Andalusia, bought a field, and began the painstaking process of building a boutique hotel on it.
During the build, he started sourcing and working with reclaimed materials for the first time, and was instantly hooked: “I explored and hunted and became friends with the guys on the salvage yards, and there I found my inspiration,” he says.
Lee started creating one-off pieces with his finds - old doors became table tops and headboards, while terracotta tiles, previously used between the beams of an old house, were sanded and laid to create the hotel’s terrace.
These tiles - with their gently faded colours and calming, relaxed aesthetic - were a turning point, and the Bert & May design story began: “The patina and colours stood out as absolutely incredible,” says Lee. “They had a beautiful faded finish which I realised can totally transform a space.”
Inspired to share the look with a wider audience, Lee set up a website and started selling the tiles online. To say the process was a labour of love is an understatement: “Starting from my garage in Yorkshire was a lonely and difficult time,” he recalls. “Doing everything yourself - from finding and buying the tiles, to uploading them onto a website, selling them and then worst of all cleaning them in the Yorkshire ‘sun’ before dispatching them was a long haul.”
The hard work ultimately paid off, with his reclaimed finds turning heads from the start. “We always had a website but the business really started with myself and a friend selling the tiles at antiques fairs,” says Lee. “On my first ever visit to Battersea Antiques Fair, I had Jemima Khan and another customer bidding for some gorgeous pink antique tiles. Those pink tiles are now one of our bestsellers - so I need to thank Jemima Khan for that.”
Our pink pradena - inspired by reclaimed tiles
From this point, interest grew and grew, resulting in the burgeoning business taking on a new lease of life in 2010 when Lee met Juanma, owner of a family-run Andalusian tile-making business that had once specialised in making artisan encaustic tiles using traditional handmade techniques. Together they decided the future of the company lay in making their own vintage-inspired designs, and so the family factory reopened and production began.
Lee and Juanma designed and created a range of antique-inspired encaustic tiles using techniques passed down through generations of Juanma’s family, and the business relaunched as Bert & May in September 2013.
The tiles were an instant hit, and new collections, stores, and projects followed, as well as a series of collaborations and partnerships with inspirational design companies.
One of the first of these was with Soho House, and it’s an ongoing union we’re particularly proud of. “I have always loved what Soho House does and it really has been a pleasure to see our products across all of their houses,” says Lee, who also credits the brand with inspiring him to ‘go big’ with his own company: “Soho House was one of my first customers and I knew I was onto something when they asked me for 170m2 of an antique tile. I only had 23 actual tiles so it really spurred me on to open the factory,” he says.
Reclaimed tiles in Soho Beach House
We’ve certainly come a long way since Bert & May began, but for all the big launches, collaborations and constantly expanding reach, our core values and authentic look remain at the heart of what we do, and we still find sourcing rare, beautiful, antique tiles as thrilling as ever.
Each example has its own story to tell thanks to the marks and imperfections left behind by time, and a unique character that just can’t be replicated. They continue to inspire us, and for this reason we’ll always have reclaimed, one-off finds available to buy - not just to stay true to our brand DNA, but because we genuinely love them.
We’ve also maintained our roots in the north of England, and that’s another important part of who we are. “I love the fact that we are a leading design business and based out of York,” says Lee. “We do have a gorgeous Chelsea studio but the design centre of the business is Yorkshire.
"I am very straight talking, and so is my team - we call a spade a spade. Not forgetting our roots and just enjoying creating new designs for lovely customers is what we are all about. The fact that that can exist in the north makes me very happy.”