Bert & May: the story of how the artisan tile company started

You’ve probably spotted the striking Bert & May tiles in many projects or you may already love them – but how did the handmade artisan tile company begin? We chat with its founder to discover more about the journey – from the first day of trading to today.

Who founded Bert & May?

Lee Thornley is the founder of Bert & May, a specialist supplier of handmade artisan tiles. He left his legal career as a barrister to learn Spanish in Cadiz. While designing his boutique hotel Casa La Siesta in Andalusia and sourcing reclaimed materials, his passion for interiors flourished.

So, he began importing and selling reclaimed tiles in the UK. Seeing his tiles in people’s home remains as exciting today as when he launched the brand in 2013, reveals Lee.

Today, we’re finding out more about how the journey started…

Bert & May founder Lee Thornley
Lee Thornley, founder of Bert & May, a specialist supplier of handmade artisan tiles.

Lee, what were you doing before starting the company?

In 2004, I left my legal career as a barrister to learn Spanish in Cadiz. And shortly after, I began work on Casa La Siesta in Andalusia – my boutique hotel that started life as a run-down outbuilding on a field in southern Spain and is now an award-winning hotel.

I realised I had a passion for design while planning the interiors: we built it from the ground up using a mix of reclaimed materials, including antique tiles. I could see how reclaimed tiles, with their aged colours and distinct patina, could completely transform interiors and exteriors, and this really sparked my love for them.

Where were you and what were you doing when you first had the eureka moment for Bert & May?

I was working on the design of the hotel and realised I had a natural talent for sourcing reclaimed materials and rare antique fittings. I also discovered that architectural salvage was much sought after by interior architects and designers. So, I was inspired to share my special finds with a wider audience and began importing and selling reclaimed tiles in the UK.

The small online venture took on a new life in 2010 when I met Juanma – who owns a small, family-run factory making traditional encaustic tiles in Spain. We joined forces, repurposed the factory to create original, vintage-inspired, handmade tiles, and launched as Bert & May in 2013.

Pink, yellow and white tiles as a splashback with yellow cabinetry and terracotta tiles on the floor
Sanabria Sweet Yellow tiles, £180 per sq m, Bert & May.

What were the first Bert & May products that you created and sold?

Our first handmade tiles were patterns such as Pradena and Alalpardo, which are still in our collection today.

What was it like in the early years of Bert & May? How were they different to now?

Originally, I was selling tiles out of my garage. We moved to a site on an industrial estate, so we could be closer to the product. Today, we have shops in London, York, and Bristol, collaborate with some of the best architects and designers, and our tiles can be seen in beautiful spaces around the world.

We sell a variety of different materials including cement, porcelain, glazed, marble, and terrazzo tiles, and have a large team. We have grown, but our core values remain the same – to create tiles made with exceptional materials and fine craftsmanship, synonymous with our raw yet refined aesthetic.

Bert & May veiny porcelain tiles in a shower
Green porcelain marble, £79.75 per sq m, and White porcelain marble, £79.76 per sq m, Bert & May.

How did it feel, seeing your creations in people’s homes for the first time on a large scale?

Being able to share my love for reclaimed tiles, and see people treasure them as much as I do, was incredible. It’s been a privilege to share my passion like this. It’s been 10 years since I founded Bert & May, but the feeling of seeing our tiles in people’s homes is still as exciting as it was back then.

Bert & May zellige tiles on a vanity with a white basin
Zellige tiles, from £144, Bert & May.

Were there any designs that fared particularly well? Equally, in those early days, was there something that didn’t do as well?

Our reclaimed and handmade antique tiles, inspired by salvaged finds, remain popular thanks to their striking designs. Our talented antique tile maker and his team ensure that these one-of-a-kind tiles reflect the patina and colours of the original reclaimed tiles. These designs bring a unique and authentic look to an interior.

The more modern, geometric patterns like our classic Alalpardo tile or Split Shift tiles, which we created in collaboration with East London design brand Darkroom, have also proved popular. We love how they can be uniquely tessellated to achieve a space that’s individual and distinct.

We grew the business quite quickly to sell products for the entire bathroom such as brassware and basins. However, this detracted from our main focus, so we made the decision to concentrate purely on what we are experts in – our handmade encaustic tiles.

What does the future hold for Bert & May?

Anything we can look forward to? We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year. It’s a huge milestone, and there are lots of exciting new launches planned. Words: Keep your eyes peeled!

Dark star tiles in a wood bathroom
Luna Old Iron porcelain tile, £79.75 per sq m, Bert & May.

Enjoyed this post? Click here to find out how Jonathan Adler started his brand

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