In The Modern Style
Words Henrietta Thompson
Photographs Carol Sachs
When two architecture journalists set up The Modern House estate agency, the fact that they had no practical experience proved to be their USP. Their secret? Reverse the traditional model, appeal to the design-savvy and remember one very unModernist maxim: ‘It’s not a property: it’s a home!’
Whether it’s margin pushing, truth bending or just relentless harassing, the business of real estate has not traditionally been synonymous with positive, cocklewarming experiences. Even – one could argue especially – at the most luxury end of the scale. Enter, then, a nontraditional alternative. The Modern House, successfully selling some of Britain’s finest examples of residential architecture since 2005, has proved that there are exceptions to the rules of real estate.
The idea was born when Albert Hill, then architecture editor at Wallpaper* magazine, moved out to the Surrey/ Hampshire border with his then girlfriend (now wife). ‘We decided to spend a weekend looking at the modern houses in our area, we had a little book of them and we love architecture and just thought it would be fun,’ says Hill. And as it happened, three or four of them were on the market. ‘The local agents had obviously photographed them as if they were embarrassed by these things. And their descriptions were – “unusual, quirky” or a bit apologetic: “Sorry this isn’t Victorian…”’
Hill began to see what successful estate agents should always have an eye for: potential. ‘I knew people who would just go crazy for these sorts of houses. It was so obvious to me that if you got a decent photographer and put them in front of the right pairs of eyes, there would be a market for them.’ A visit to Sarasota in Florida to look at a couple of realtors who were doing things differently confirmed the notion.
Hill called his friend Matt Gibberd, then senior editor at The World of Interiors magazine, and – like Hill – also studying architecture at London’s The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, on the side. He floated the idea of a design-led estate agency. Inspired by FRS Yorke’s influential book of the same name, they founded The Modern House.
In a world where estate agency is such an unpopular profession, The Modern House immediately stood out not just for the beautiful properties it dealt in – and not just for the way it presented them (though more on that later). One of the biggest points of difference from the start has been its insistence on seeing clients as human beings. At a time when moving house is polled as being more stressful than divorce, reinventing the process as a positive experience has been a radical departure from the norm.
‘Sometimes the process lets people down,’ says Gibberd, with almost laughable understatement. ‘But to be fair to Foxtons’ employees, it’s no fault of theirs: it’s the model. It’s just not conducive to good customer service.’ In the usual estate agency structure, he explains, every agent is incentivised to basically trample over their colleagues. If you phone up wanting to view a house, you’ll talk to a negotiator who will then ‘own’ you as their buyer. They are free to take you to whichever houses are on the market with their agency and try to sell that product to you. ‘What we’ve done is reverse that,’ he says. ‘Each of our clients – the person paying us the money – is assigned a sales advisor. That person feeds back from all the viewings, offers them selling advice, negotiates everything for them and sees them through that process. That way, we’re concentrating on the right person, which is the client.’ It means you don’t have lots of negotiators taking a pop at the same thing and trying to outdo each other. A shared commission structure also means the sales team will share the spoils.
Today, a browse through The Modern House’s catalogue is property porn for the design buff , and many of their loyal community do browse, regularly, even when they are not looking to move. Here is a business case where inspiration is everything, however: on average, according to research they commissioned recently, a house sold through them will fetch 12 per cent above local prices. This could be, they acknowledge, because of the design of the homes, but it could also be the value of curation. ‘The truth is,’ says Hill. ‘It’s probably a bit of everything.’
‘You can’t go on the regular property portals and filter by design quality’
Huge believers in the power of ‘packaging’, this is where the founders’ backgrounds as design editors really gives The Modern House its edge. ‘We commission editorial quality photographers to visit every home that we represent, and they spend a lot of time there,’ says Hill. ‘They make sure they get it right. Equally, we spend a lot of time on research, making sure the particulars are correct and presenting it to a design-literate audience. And we all know that once someone develops an emotional connection to a house, that’s when you’ve got a sale.’
Contrary to what many luxury estate agents discover – and as odd as this may sound – those who buy through The Modern House will generally live in the property themselves. ‘It’s possibly one of the best ways you can spend your money, given the amount of time and how important the shell around your life is,’ says Gibberd. ‘Although in a way one of the Achilles’ heels of our business is that people don’t tend to sell the houses that they buy from us very often. They like them too much!’
With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram and three million visits a year on their website, a significant portion of their audience are what they call ‘dormant buyers’, ready to be persuaded should the right thing pass in front of their eyes. Rightmove or Zoopla might be ultra-powerful in other respects, but it’s unlikely they could claim the same. ‘You can’t go on the regular property portals and filter by design quality, so by acting as a filter and turning down a huge amount of work, we get very, very strong audience engagement,’ says Hill.
So what actually is it that makes an acceptable Modern House? Look through the site and it’s not unusual to see Georgian, Victorian and contemporary properties alongside the masterpieces from the actual Modernist period that formed the bulk of their earliest listings. And they don’t just sell houses but flats as well. ‘I’m reminded of something that Alex de Rijke of dRMM* has been talking about recently,’ says Gibberd. ‘He talks about architecture as experience – and in a way what we’re interested in is lived experience, a place where modern life can take place.’
‘Exactly right,’ Hill chips in. ‘It’s not so much about the fabric of the building but the way it’s inhabited, the way that someone collects their things within that space, the way they entertain within it.’ He points to their journal and the way they tell stories around each property. ‘We meet all sorts of people in all sorts of environments… for some people, it’s about a modern way of family living.’
Clearly the starting point for the modern house, generally, is the modern movement, however, and the classic Modernist principles that were established then: a high level of natural light, for example, a relationship between the indoors and the outdoors, and a truth to materials. ‘But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every element has to be modern or contemporary. Georgian architects were big on light as well, you know?’
Ultimately it’s an intuitive decision. Just as Corbusier encapsulated the best and worst of the Modernist period, talking about houses as ‘machines for living in’ which is surely diametrically opposed to the idea of ‘nesting’ and the all-important building of emotional connections that is The Modern House’s mission.
One of the main reasons Hill and Gibberd love what they do, they say, is because of the characters and the personalities involved. ‘There’s nothing better than going to see an architect who’s built their own house for themselves in the Sixties, and finding this beautifully preserved thing that has become an embodiment of them,’ says Gibberd. And The Modern House properties are genuinely imbued with personality. ‘Someone has clearly cared for these placed and loved them,’ explains Hill. ‘And they have thought about these spaces deeply, you know… thought about the details, the materials. That’s what comes through on a physical and environmental level. And if there’s a story you can tell about a space, that really enhances your connection to it – the best stories come from people who have occupied it.’
There’s definitely an element of buying into a story in much the same way that the art world and auction houses have encouraged for years. ‘That hasn’t really happened in property,’ Hill catches himself… ‘And the word “property” itself is horrendous word! It’s not a property; it’s a home, and that’s a very different way of looking at it.’
Which brings us to another of the more radical differences in their operation. Rather than see ‘a property of 2,000 sq ft with three bedrooms etc’, The Modern House team will first and foremost look at it as a place where people’s lives take place. ‘For us,’ says Gibberd, ‘it’s what gets everyone in our company excited. We’re interested in people and we’re interested in design. We’re interested in the sales as well. But you know…’
Having found their advantage, the aim now is to keep expanding The Modern House and cement its position as the ‘owners of modern living space’. This means potential expansion into other areas – but again, instead of looking at this geographically, the plan is to explore all the spaces that someone might occupy throughout their life. At home, at work or on holiday. Having moved away from the tricky business that is rentals, there’s potential to re-enter that market – they are looking at a workspaces offering, and refining their existing holiday-lets offering, too. And UK only this time, for quality control purposes.
Something else that the co-founders are interested to stay ahead of is the changing notion of ‘home’ altogether, as people work at home a lot more, and platforms such as Airbnb have made people look at their homes as an asset to monetise in a new way. ‘I was reading an article about a set designer yesterday,’ recalls Hill, ‘and she had decorated her house purely with a view to ensuring location shoots. So it’s almost like a set first and a home second. So when we have our “Live, Work, Stay” proposition, increasingly we need to acknowledge that they’re all becoming blended.’
In the meantime, the emphasis is on making buying and selling a home as stress free and enjoyable as possible. A new ‘moving in pack’, developed with designer (and Gibberd’s wife) Faye Toogood, is one such example. ‘It’s a very special moment, actually taking hold of those keys and opening up your home for the first time,’ says Hill. ‘We thought about what we would want in that scenario, and we came up with this welcome pack of nice little things to get excited about.’ So for instance, instead of the clichéd plastic keyfob, they off er a bespoke leather keychain designed by artisan shoemaker Sebastian Tarek, among other unique and considerate keepsakes.
‘Moving house is a time when people are at their most emotionally vulnerable, and it’s a real privilege to be able to work with people at that stage of their life. You’re dealing with great properties and with great people. It’s so important to make that a positive experience for everyone.’