How this designer transformed his 'ugly duckling' home into an earthy haven
With a portfolio that includes a business creating beautiful hand-made tiles, a boutique hotel on a barge in Hackney, a renovated hotel near the pretty Moorish village of Vejer de la Frontera, and collaborations with design titans from Darkroom to The Conran Shop, Lee Thornley is struggling to remember any redeeming features about his new home when he first clapped eyes on it.
‘If I’m being honest it was the price that attracted us to it,’ he says of the humdrum 1950s property in Yorkshire that greeted him and his family when they returned from ten years living in the sun-drenched haze of Andalucia.
‘You are forced into what you can get, and the location is key. We couldn’t afford a beautiful period property and this is what we could afford: it’s pretty ugly and average and had no architectural features at all.’
Having switched from a profession as a barrister to setting up a business offering reclaimed Spanish tiles, evolving into Bert & May, interior design and architectural collaborations in the form of Bert’s Boxes, modular living spaces, Lee is a creative with a pragmatic heart.
His day job as creative director of Bert & May is in supplying artisan, encaustic tiles for the world’s most beautiful homes, so Lee knows a lot about taking simple ingredients – in the case of the tiles, marble dust and natural pigments – and turning it into something dazzlingly beautiful.
‘The house was the ugly duckling of the street but in some ways that meant it was a blank canvas and we could be more creative,’ he says of the home he shares with partner Phil and daughters Iris and Lyla. ‘It turned on its head. I thought at first, ‘what a disaster’, and in the end it allowed us to do something amazing.’
The three-bed has now been transformed into a haven of earthy, neutral colours that create a backdrop for pops of colour and texture. It would be tempting to call it Scandi style – with crisp lines, faded neutrals and organic tactile textures – but thanks to features such as the Stovax wood burner, 1950s-style cocktail chairs and bold wood panelling, there is a 1970s swagger that showcases Lee’s confidence in what he is doing.
The main living room is designed to be warm and inviting with Little Greene’s ‘Purple Brown’ on the walls and a richly coloured teal velvet sofa from made.com, with the deep shades working in harmony with a dark textured rug, thick velvet curtains and reclaimed wood flooring and timber cladding.
This certainly is a place to hide away from the stresses and strains of modern life. ‘The most obvious thing to do if you are nervous buying a property is go for what everyone says is classically beautiful. The reality is most of us don’t live in that kind of property, so look at square metres and location, how much light… and don’t be afraid to go for it.’
The front of the house had the faux wood cladding removed and replaced with Iroko cladding. This theme continues inside in most rooms. Lee says that if you like something, you should keep it going, rather than trying something new, and has created a warmth and natural connection with the outdoors with the addition of large bi-fold doors.
Lee worked with York-based practice Mass Architecture to reimagine the structure and introduce a brighter, airier feel with an overall concept for the house for beautiful, easy living, as well as being a comforting and relaxed atmosphere. Lee is hesitant to label his home with any one style. Not one for constantly staring at Instagram, he doesn’t like to label things with trend-ready labels, instead going with his heart and letting it work itself out.
‘When anyone meets with me at Bert & May and asks me what to do with a design, I can’t say unless I know what you like. It is about encouraging creativity. And the eclectic houses that are clear in their identity are the best.
‘What does not work is when you try to be someone else. It’s so important to encourage people to ask themselves what [styles] they really love – it is hard and brave.’
The house has defined spaces to give everyone room to live – the master bedroom is downstairs to allow the girls privacy – and the large open-plan kitchen/dining/living room is the communal heart of the home. The whole space is infused with calm, earthy, tones, including the neat row of Caestarstone-topped timber units lining the back wall and the central island covered in Bert & May’s Hexagonal Split tiles in Pearl + Brighton stone.
The walls and ceiling of the living area are covered in bright white Charterhouse No. 4 from Mylands, helping to keep them airy spaces. Reclaimed wood flooring adds texture in the form of a dining table made from antique wood shutters.
In the garden, Lee has installed a Study Box, part of the Bert’s Box collection which is a collaboration between architects Box 9 Design and Bert & May. The Study Box has a heavily textured timber cladding on the walls and reclaimed timber desk and mid-century modern furniture. Bert & May Hexagonal Split tiles feature here.
Lee’s self belief is evident in his inspiration for this home. Anyone who has seen Tom Ford’s impeccably stylish A Single Man will know there are two stars of the film – Colin Firth and John Lautner’s Schaffer Residence in the Verdugo Mountains.
Most people wouldn’t have the self-belief to use a Californian Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired forest home as the template for a suburban makeover in the north of England. But Lee admits: ‘I wanted to make the Yorkshire equivalent of that property.’
Having created such a hidden gem, Lee is not planning to move any time soon. If he does, he says, it will be again with his head rather than his heart. ‘We are about the location so it would be in the same area.
‘And it would just be for a slightly larger plot – that’s more important than if its period. We have proven you can do a lot with what you have, you can’t do much with the size of the plot.’
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