Tile designers: Bert & May

Lee Thornley and Harriet Roberts experiment with natural pigment and pattern to create hand-poured artisan tiles that are perfectly in tune with contemporary interiors.

Responding to a demand for natural colour in a beautiful muted palette of matt shades, Lee Thornley and Harriet Roberts launched their specialist tile business, Bert & May, in September 2013. With a firm belief that colour is as important as design, the company creates original artisan tiles using traditional techniques, alongside offering a vast array of reclaimed stock from Europe.

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Bert & May

Lee and Harriet, aka Bert & May, outside their east London warehouse and showroom.

‘I’ve always been interested in design,’ says Lee. ‘After a period of living in Spain, in 2008 I decided to build a hotel using reclaimed materials. It was supposed to be a modest B&B but ended up as a luxury boutique hotel, Casa La Siesta, in Cadiz. Visitors made me realise that there was a demand for reclaimed floors in the UK, and I eventually began to export them.’

Bert & May

The muted palette of matt shades is a defining feature of Bert & May’s encaustic tiles, which cover the floor of the east London warehouse and showroom.

It was while staying at Casa La Siesta in summer 2013 that Harriet started chatting to Lee. ‘I recognised the floor tiles, as I’d seen them at Sunbury Antiques Market just outside London,’ she says. ‘I was looking for a change of direction after nine years of working for an international bank in the City. My strength is in business, but I’ve always had a creative side and I love everything to do with interiors.’

The pair decided to go into business together, thus Bert & May was born; the name combines Lee’s nickname, Bert, and Harriet’s middle name, May. Based in east London, the company sells a huge range of reclaimed tiles, as well as wood flooring from Europe, and creates its own tiles using non-synthetic pigments. ‘In order to meet the demand for greater quantities of our own designs, we restored an original hand-operated press. This allows us to produce encaustic tiles in the traditional way,’ says Lee.

Bert & May

The starting point of every tile is a sketch – the company is contacted by up to ten new designers every week.

‘In east London,’ says Lee. ‘The whole area is one big fabulous design hub.’ Harriet sees their role as fostering creativity. ‘We are always looking for designers who will make something interesting.’The pair visit major design fairs – Tent London, Clerkenwell Design Week, Design Junction and Maison & Objet – as well as graduate shows. ‘We are also involved in hosting events with The Hackney Society, which aims to preserve the area’s heritage, and Print Club in Dalston, which is great for finding new talent,’ says Lee.

Bert & May

The company serves as a platform for other designers, such as Smink Things, whose glazed tiles are displayed in the showroom on a scaffolding rack.

The reclaimed tiles are from Spain, France and Italy. On a recent salvaging trip to Spain, tiles were sourced from Andalusian town houses and the entire contents of haciendas were bought at auction. ‘All of our pigments for making cement tiles are from Andalusia,’ says Lee. ‘Historically, natural pigments were used there, resulting in a palette of muted matt tones, as opposed to harsher synthetic colours. We also design glazed tiles in more vibrant shades, which are produced in Turkey. We are colour specialists, so we never just take the easy route.’

Bert & May

The vast selection of antique offerings includes these Frieda glazed tiles from Spain.

It starts with a sketch. ‘We review the designs weekly and the team decides which ones will be put into production,’ says Lee. ‘A metal mould is made and we select the colours. All the tiles are produced in Cadiz. The liquid cement is mixed with natural pigment, and each individual element is hand poured.” The tiles are pressed, rather than fired in a kiln, then dipped in water and left to dry naturally in the sun for two weeks. ‘It’s a simple but time-consuming and labour-intensive process,” says Lee. ‘Each tile takes five to six minutes to make, and one craftsman produces a maximum of 150 a day. The finished tiles are packed and sent to our yard in Yorkshire.’

Lee commutes from Harrogate and is based in London four days a week, while Harriet lives in north London. As the business has grown 280 per cent, staff has increased, too. Lee runs a sales team of three and works on marketing collaborations, while Harriet oversees the business and production sides, but there’s a lot of overlap. ‘We share a strong sense of the direction the business should take and my role is very much about keeping that on track,’ says Harriet. ‘We constantly feed back to the team, so we don’t lose sight of objectives.’

Bert & May

Reclaimed wood is also a large part of the business.

Each morning begins with a core team briefing at 8.30am, at which the day’s agenda is set. Orders are worked through, priorities discussed with the tile maker, new colours researched and samples requested. ‘Then we force ourselves to go off-site for meetings and to have space to think,” says Lee. ‘It’s tempting just to sit here and be part of the machinery, but we need to get out there every day.’

Bert & May

These small antique cement tiles are among reclaimed stock from France, Italy and Spain. The Bert & May signature is imprinted on the underside of its artisan designs.

Bert & May, 67 Vyner Street, London, E2 9DQ, 020 3673 4264, bertandmay.com. En.caustica, encaustica.co.uk.

Photography/ Alun Callender