We chat to Lee Thornley – founder of Bert & May tiles – about his stunning house renovation, his love of reclaimed materials and the importance of expressing yourself in your home interior design…
“...A really cool interior represents you and that means it’s unique. So whether you like maximalist interiors, or dark colours, or whatever it is, you must just totally go for it. This is your one chance to be an artist and express yourself in your home… Don’t hold back!”
Bert & May design beautiful reclaimed and handmade tiles, with a gorgeous, natural colour palette that seems to transport you into a world of olive groves and Mediterranean sunlight. At Pooky we’ve long been Bert & May fans (their Chelsea showroom is just down the road from ours) so it was a pleasure to sit down with founder Lee Thornley.
Lee is a man with a natural flair for interior design: his stunning family home renovation in Yorkshire recently featured in the FT. And since it includes a Pooky light or two, we thought it was a perfect excuse to chat about lights, tiles and all things interior design…
Lee Thornley. Photo courtesy of Bert & May
We were delighted to see some Pooky lights popping up in your amazing riverside family home. Can you tell us a little about the renovation – what did you start from and what were the main challenges?
The house is actually made up of two cottages that were built at the same time but were completely segregated, so the big challenge was to turn these two separate properties into one big family home. I’d previously been living in Spain for so long that I didn’t want a ‘traditional’ British family home, but rather something that felt a bit more European, making use of big open spaces and embracing the outdoors, bringing the outside environment into the house as much as possible.
In practice that meant I ripped out every wall, exposed every beam and fireplace, and got right back to the essential ‘bones’ of the building. When you buy a property you really don’t know what those bones are: you only discover them when you start stripping everything back.
Dining space with Bert & May's Raw Thick Bejmat floor tiles and dining table with a trio of Pooky's Pumpkin pendant lights. Photo: Beth Davis
What is it like to live in the finished house?
It’s great! The most important thing is it creates an emotion as soon as you walk in. People say ‘wow’ when they enter it, and very often they’ll say something along the lines of it feeling very ‘foreign’.
It’s a healthy space to live in. In this part of the world we have our seasons of short, dark days, and we have to make the very most of what natural light and warmth we do get: this house does that.
The home is full of beautiful reclaimed materials, including of course Bert & May tiles. Why is reclamation important to you?
Because we can’t afford to go on not thinking about what we buy and where it comes from. We have to start being considered in our buying and what we use.
Fireplace featuring reclaimed tiles; a reclaimed bath restored by Antique Baths of Ivybridge. Photos: Beth Davis
Tell us about the Bert & May backstory… How did you come to start the business?
It all goes back to 2004, when I left London to build a small boutique hotel called Casa La Siesta in Cadiz, Spain. I had no background in interior design but I found I had a knack for sourcing reclaimed materials and antique fittings. The hotel got a lot of press attention and was even named one of Top 100 hotels in the world. The magazine coverage was all about praising its ‘aesthetic’, so I thought really hard about what that word means, as it can be a bit of a vague, fluffy word.
I’d become very suspicious about anything that’s ‘on trend’ or ‘in fashion’ - as to me that means it probably won’t last, and eventually I decided that my aesthetic was really about embracing materials that will last forever: a perfect example being terracotta tiles.
I wanted to share that with a wider audience, so I started a small online venture importing reclaimed tiles from Spain into the UK. Then in 2010 I met Juanma, who owned a family business that once specialised in traditional handmade Spanish encaustic tiles, and we decided to join forces to create our own tiles inspired by vintage designs. We re-opened the old family factory and that was the foundation of the Bert & May business.
What makes Bert & May tiles special?
All our colours are natural pigments. They’re colours that have been around for centuries, so they’ve stood the test of time. When you buy them you can be confident and know that they’re an investment. We’ve already done the work for you in sourcing timeless colours and tiles that you can pass down the generations.
Kitchen with Bert & May's Clear Glazed Bejmat floor tiles; bathrooms featuring Green Herringbone Honed Marble tiles (left); and Clear Glazed Bejmat tiles (right). Photos: Beth Davis
You're obviously a talented interior designer... What advice would you give to people about decorating their own homes?
Ask yourself, what do you really like? What is your taste? It’s so easy in this world of Instagram and Pinterest to just follow what others are doing, and quite often things you seek out for ‘inspiration’ can actually be inhibiting.
But a really cool interior represents you and that means it’s unique. So whether you like maximalist interiors, or dark colours, or whatever it is, you must just totally go for it. This is your one shot, your chance to be an artist and express yourself in your home… Don’t hold back!
How important is lighting to you, and any tips you’d like to share?
For me, lighting is about materials and complementing the house. I don’t go for big central showstoppers, but I like things that are simple and obviously well-made from good materials. What I like about Pooky is that there’s a very broad range, which as well as the centrepieces includes a lot of simple, beautifully made pieces.
My tip would be to be unafraid of mixing up different styles of lighting not just within your home but within a space. A lot of people think they ought to have a single style throughout, but you can really mix things up. And with Pooky there’s so much variety, but it’s been curated enough that you know that whatever you choose, it’s all going to work together.
Finally, do you have a favourite Pooky light, and if so, why that one?
I’ve known Pooky for a long time – with our stores we’ve been neighbours in Chelsea’s design quarter for years. It’s tricky but if I had to pick one I’d go with the Pumpkin glass pendant lights, which I have hanging in a trio over the dining table.