The Bert & May tile company story sounds almost improbably serendipitous. While building his Spanish boutique hotel Casa La Siesta, in Cadiz’s Vejer de la Frontera, Lee Thornley discovered a stash of beautiful, salvaged encaustic tiles. The original producer was no longer in the trade, having retreated to the Sierra di Cadiz mountains, but Thornley managed to track him down and persuade him back into business. He bought an old, original encaustic tile-making machine, which took over a year to restore, and today Thornley, with his business partner Harriet Roberts, runs a bespoke encaustic floor- and wall-tile business, courtesy of three newly installed tile-makers in Cadiz and a stylish east London showroom.
Bert & May tiles (from £120 per sq m) are made by pouring liquid pigment cement into metal or plastic moulds, so that the colours run through the entire tile – rather than simply being printed as surface designs. The company also specialises in authentic reclaimed tiles (second picture), which bespoke commissions can reference for inspiration – whether that be up-to-date colourations of traditional designs (as seen in a recent floral tile for the Cowshed concession at Selfridges) or motifs created entirely from scratch (such as for The Blues Kitchen in Shoreditch, third picture).
Clients bring in their ideas and designs, and Bert & May creates a primary design and two alternative patterns. A geometric Azure tile design (first picture), for example, was produced for Jasper Conran for The Conran Shop, and based on the fabulous blues of the Côte d’Azur sea. Private commissions have included a house in Beverly Hills (“a very small triangular geometric design, in a very rich, quite dark blue,” says Thornley) and a more traditional design for a Georgian townhouse in Notting Hill.
Rather charmingly, Thornley is bringing a smaller version of his hydraulic machine over to the UK to coincide with September’s London Design Week. Taking centre stage at the brand’s Design Junction stand, the device will showcase the tile-making process – and in particular the moulds, which are the winning design from a recent RIBA competition and will enter its autumn/winter 2014 collection. “Everyone can come and have a go,” encourages Thornley.