Ten minutes with Lee Thornley, from Bert & May

The creative director and founder of Bert & May talks about renovating his latest family home in Yorkshire, the importance of details and adorable nicknames.

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How did your latest renovation project begin?
In the past our homes have been lovely period properties where the focus has been on restoring original features and there’s a sense of history to guide the design choices. This time we [Lee, his partner Phil, and their two daughters] bought for the location – a village in Yorkshire we adore - not the architectural style. It was a pretty crappy 1950s build, with nothing to save or restore. Everyone raves about a blank canvas but, as we discovered, they can be a much harder starting point. We decided to use the most beautiful individual components possible and turn the ordinary into something amazing. Yes, we did a moodboard or two, but most of our design decisions were materials driven, namely oak, brass, bronze, Crittall and, of course, Bert & May’s encaustic tiles.   

What inspired the overall look?
I don’t have a particular period or style or interior designer that I try to emulate but I do remember watching ‘A Single Man’ [directed by fashion designer Tom Ford] and feeling inspired by the most incredible mid-century interiors. The movie is set in a 1960s house filled with layers of warmth, colour and texture but done in a very open-plan, Scandi way. The vibe seemed perfect, and that pared back, textural aesthetic has always appealed to me. 
What were your toughest, and easiest, challenges?
Going minimalist was hard for me, especially when it came to bringing in the cosiness we needed to make it a liveable family home. The paint colours helped, especially Little Greene’s ‘Purple Brown’ in the snug, but we also used lots of velvets and other textiles to soften the rooms. Deciding which Bert & May tiles to use was probably the easiest element. Everyone assumes I’ll go for the classic bold Bert & May geometric pattern but I’m actually very happy picking a plain tile – I’m quite boring really. I particularly like the putty shade of the herringbone tiles in the kitchen. It’s always been the colours, not the patterns, that appeal to me.   

How important were the architectural details?
In any successful interior, it’s the switches, sockets, handles – the touchpoints really – that matter. Yes, you can absolutely have an amazingly decorated room with stunning wallpaper or paint finishes but it’s the architectural details that elevate it from perhaps a 7 to a 10-star space. Light switches are especially important because they are at eye-level and you touch them every day. Why wouldn’t you take the time to choose beautiful switches? It’s like buying a jacket with ugly buttons. It could be the nicest jacket in the world but if the buttons aren’t nice too, you just wouldn’t buy it.
Why did you choose Corston’s fittings in bronze?
They are just really simple, and really beautiful. Corston’s designs don’t try too hard; some switches and sockets can be too over the top. I don’t want to show off, but I do enjoy good quality, good looking designs. For a period home I would go for antique brass but in this property we needed a more modern look and the bronze is perfect. It isn’t pretending to be old but it still has character and it will very gradually age with use, just like the other materials we’ve chosen. 

How did environmental considerations inform your decisions?
Everything we’ve done, in this house but also at Bert & May generally, has been about products that are designed and built to last. We checked out the environment credentials of all our suppliers, including Corston, and only bought from companies that share this ethos. The conscious decision to NOT buy disposable crap that doesn’t matter is really gaining traction now and it’s a really positive change that we’ve supported since day one. We started Bert & May selling recycled tiles and I still believe passionately that reusing is the best way to protect the environment. But if you do buy manufactured products, like switches and sockets, taking the time to search out designs with longevity and durability can also make a big difference.   

Finally, where did name Bert & May come from?
Bert is the nickname I earned for wearing a stripey jumper like Liquorice Allsorts’ Bertie Bassett! And May is the nickname of Harriet Roberts, who founded the company with me back in 2013.