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5 November 2021

Inside the Modern House: the UK’s aspirational estate agency

Based on 16 years of running the design-led estate agency, Modern House co-founder Matt Gibberd speaks about his book A Modern Way to Live.

By Sarah Manavis

On a bright October morning, I stand on a back street in Edinburgh’s city centre waiting to enter a near-million-pound home hidden in plain sight. Its large floor-to-ceiling windows are partially bricked up, limiting the view inside to the plants sitting on the sills. The enormous Victorian rooflights reveal nothing. I had walked past this building hundreds of times before, never knowing what it was. 

The exterior of Naomi Garriock’s house.

The only clue is the sign hanging above its door, indicating that this was a private home for sale with the Modern House, the UK’s most aspirational estate agency-cum-lifestyle brand, founded in 2005 by design journalists Albert Hill and Matt Gibberd. The company originally set out to sell 20th-century modernist homes to specialist buyers, but in the intervening 16 years it has become a magnet for fans of high-end, design-focused properties. The average price of a listing comes in at £1.2m, (though the company is keen to stress it has listed homes for as low as £100,000, scaling up to eight figures). Its Instagram following is often described as a “cult”, but only in reference to the devout obsession it garners – this year, the account surpassed half a million followers, making it undoubtedly mainstream. It receives millions of unique visitors to its website annually, most of whom are more likely to be scrolling out of aspiration rather than seriously considering the purchase of a multimillion-pound London townhouse.

Though the Modern House’s rise and expansion has been steadily exponential, this past year has been particularly remarkable: it debuted an interiors magazine of the same name, launched a sister agency, Inigo, dedicated to historic homes and properties, and is on track to reach 50 per cent growth by the end of 2021. This has culminated in the release of a book by Gibberd – another first for the company – called A Modern Way to Live: 5 Design Principles from the Modern House. As with the magazine, it means a millennial renter audience that could only scroll rather than buy, can participate in the Modern House brand.

A Modern Way to Live is split into five sections: space, light, materials, nature and decoration. While largely focusing on principles of design, Gibberd weaves in anecdotes about the estate agency, giving real-life examples of homes that have deployed similar techniques (and as a result, in Gibberd’s telling, sold well). It also contains tips on how to apply these principles in your own home (such as how to rearrange a room to enjoy more light), although most are more aspirational than practical (in one section, Gibberd extolls the value of installing a retractable roof).

When I arrive at Hill Street in Edinburgh, the home of artist Naomi Garriock, I am looking to see A Modern Way to Live in action. It is immediately clear that this home would be an atypical listing for a traditional estate agent: it is a massive, high-ceilinged expanse that originally housed a dance studio. The walls are on wheels and can be moved to suit whoever is using the space. Garriock now allows artists, art groups and social enterprises to use it for free, while she lives in the modern mid-century apartment downstairs. She greets me in a white jumpsuit, covered in Jackson Pollock-esque splatters of paint, while an architecture firm delivers a seminar that echoes through the room.

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Garriock’s interior, formerly a dance studio.

“When I came here, it was a commercial space and I just had to think about how I could reconfigure it to make a live/work space,” Garriock tells me. “It was on a shoestring, we didn’t have a lot of money… I was just looking at what you could do with the layout and how it could function.” Garriock originally lived in the open studio while the apartment was renovated (furnished from the demolished parts of the school she attended as a child – her kitchen island and bedroom shelves are from benches and tables that were once in the science lab). She shows me pictures of the studio being turned into an exhibition space, a flat for her and her son to live in, and a “rave” and cocktail bar for parties over the nine years she has lived there. 

An understanding of this non-traditional way of living is what drew her to the Modern House. While a different agency might encourage buyers to see the space in terms of sheer profitability per square foot (“I mean, someone could buy that and turn it into three flats,” Garriock says), the Modern House understood its value as an unusual living space.

Given Garriock’s praise for the Modern House, I am surprised to learn that her home has been sitting on the market for a year (two offers fell through). Next to the sign above her door is another for a different high street estate agency (this one currently has an “under offer” label stuck on it, though she’s not sure it will go through either). But she still describes her experiences with the two agencies as “chalk and cheese”, insisting that the Modern House knows how to handle “somewhere that doesn’t fit into the triangle roof, square, child’s drawing of a house.”

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Though she is now “desperate” to sell her home, she still hopes the Modern House will find her the right buyer. “The Modern House is trying to matchmake. For me, it’s a matchmaking service.” She is looking for someone who will see themselves as a “custodian” to the building in the way that she has. “And hopefully they have deeper pockets than me to do something fantastic!”

Garriock believes the Modern House is much more than an estate agency. “It isn’t just house porn,” she says. “It’s not just expensive houses. It’s reimagining the way that we live.”

The Modern House is not only unique in the homes it sells, but also in how it functions internally. Like Gibberd and Hill, the vast majority of its roughly 60-person team do not come from property-selling backgrounds, but instead from the world of design, architecture and art. The company also turns down half of the work it’s offered.

“It’s sort of commercially suicidal, isn’t it?” Gibberd jokes. He is speaking over Zoom from his rural home, where he lives with his wife, the designer Faye Toogood, and three daughters. He is enthusiastic and warm. His background is predictably eclectic: featuring a shadowbox over the fireplace with life-sized finch hung inside it and two birds’ nests sitting on his mantle. “We feel very strongly about it,” he says of the Modern House’s choice to cull much of its prospective business. “The Modern House has to act as a filter of sorts: we have to be an edit, because that’s how we stand out. So we can’t ever accept all-comers, because then we’re no different to Rightmove.”

Gibberd explains that the type of homes the agency turns down typically don’t fit the five design principles he explores in A Modern Way to Live. It wouldn’t list a home that used “gaudy or fake or disingenuous” materials, nor one that relied upon “glitzy coloured lighting” in the kitchen or bathroom: “It’s too flashy.” The homes it lists, he says, are “honest” and avoid an “outward show of cleverness or wealth”.

For the homes that do pass this high bar, the work that goes into listing them is beyond the norm. Garriock tells me that when she began working with the Modern House, her agent came up from London to stay in the home to better understand the space and how she could explain it to buyers living outside of Scotland. The agent even timed how long it took to get to other Edinburgh neighbourhoods, to be able to give buyers an accurate sense of commutes and travel links. “It was epic,” Garriock laughs.

While this treatment doesn’t happen for every home that the Modern House sells, Lucy Roome, head of sales at the company, explains that trips like this are not uncommon. “We make sure that we’re getting a really good understanding of what it is that a seller has loved about their home,” she says. “They’ve often lived in them for 20-odd years or, if not, they’ve built them themselves or they’ve designed them themselves. So ultimately, they’re the people that are going to be able to provide us with the knowledge of things like the best place to sit and have their coffee in the morning, where the sun comes in; all those kind of niche things about a home that we, as agents, can ask but don’t necessarily get to experience.”

Each home gets a meticulous photoshoot: no bad lighting or wide-angled shots, but pictures that go well beyond the quality of even a glossy interiors magazine. The black point is low and the aperture is opened wide; they are closer to what you’d find in the portfolio of a still life artist. A marketing strategy is then put in place, complete with social media tactics, editorial articles on its website and press coverage. This attention to detail and level of care, Roome believes, is why the Modern House gets many repeat customers.

Gibberd feels passionately that the Modern House provides a service for homes that would otherwise struggle to sell – that their interior design choices, a draw for its modernist-loving buyers, was seen as a turn off by traditional agencies. 

“There are quite a few spaces we sell that, before the Modern House existed, just wouldn’t have had the same resonance in the market,” he says. “Let’s be honest, estate agents looked at a lot of these places and would present it as, ‘This house is in a great location, but I’m really sorry guys, it’s modern.’ We turned it on its head and said, ‘Well, that’s something to celebrate.’”

This is a point of pride for Gibberd. Throughout A Modern Way to Live, he periodically cites how far over the average value of a home of its size in its area a well-designed Modern House property will sell for. A penthouse in Hoxton Square sold for 40 per cent over the average, a home made of black glass in Sydenham sold for 50 per cent over, and a brick house in Deptford sold for 58 per cent over. Gibberd sold his own parents’ house for 25 per cent over the asking price.

“If someone has done something absolutely extraordinary with their living space and enough people agree that it’s extraordinary, then I think it’s absolutely right and natural that the price should go up,” Gibberd says. He denies that the agency would ever overinflate the price of a listing. “We are identifying the market of people that are going to fall in love with it the most, and those are the people that are going to pay the most,” he says. “We are ultimately maximising the value of it for our clients: that’s what they’re paying us to do.

“We’ve never set out to raise house prices, but we can’t get away from the fact that we make a living out of selling people’s homes for them, and that’s the reality.” He insists the Modern House applies “the same values to a flat at £100,000 as we do a house at £10m… we celebrate good design and architecture at every level.”

Gibberd argues that the “flaw” in the Modern House’s business model is that people are often willing to pay more because they are going to stay in their new home for decades: and, as a result, will not soon return to the Modern House to resell. “I like that sense of longevity,” he says. “Perhaps it’s important that we stay in our homes for longer… a very anti-commercial message, by the way!”

For all Gibberd professes to dislike an “outward show” of wealth, the homes listed on the Modern House are nevertheless emblematic of a particular brand of understated, middle-bordering-on-upper-class affluence. There is a cultural elitism built into the core of the brand: something Gibberd is very aware of. But he hopes that the principles of his book are applicable – on some level – to any home in any part of the country, whether you’re an owner or a renter, in a small space or in an eight-bedroom house.

“I hope there’s something in there for everyone,” he says. “Whatever stage of life you’re at, I hope you can find something in there that makes you think about your home in a different way.”

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