Five years ago, at about the same time as my local branch of Foxtons had its windows broken by anti-gentrification protesters, I found myself falling under the spell of a very different kind of estate agency. The Modern House was a niche online outfit founded 10 years before by two art history graduates, Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill.
I had used it for work a couple of times, but now I noticed myself clicking through its emails more and more, gazing dreamily at the listings, luxuriating in the austerely accomplished art direction. I wasn’t even looking for a new house: I love where I live. But I still found the occasional glimpse of other places and, I suppose, the possibility of other lives, a welcome interruption from day-to-day reality.
The Modern House doesn’t only list modern houses, but also converted schools, chapels and barns, Georgian refurbs and once even a martello tower. Allowing for the distensions of the south-eastern property bubble, and the estate agent’s déformation professionnelle, the need to be “aspirational”, it doesn’t deal exclusively at the stratospheric end of the market.
“We like the idea of applying the same reverence and marketing know-how to homes across the full gamut of prices, places and periods,” Gibberd told me. Listings are knowledgeably and stylishly written – Hill and Gibberd both have a background in design journalism – even if I’m not sure “bustling” is quite the right word for Deptford High Street.
In general, though, they are short on the kind of boosterish flim-flam you’d expect to find on foxtons.co.uk. And they’re steeped in at least some of the ideals of the modern movement (Gibberd’s grandfather Sir Frederick was one of the most important British architects of the mid-20th century), applauding small, thought-out details, like the “gargoyles” on Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s Vanbrugh Park estate in Blackheath, say, and celebrating the modernist trifecta of “light, air and openness” alongside the banal luxuries of an en suite cinema or quintuple garage.
I wanted to find out how lockdown had affected the agency. “It felt like somebody turned the tap off in March,” said Gibberd. “And when it came back on again, the plumber had completely altered the water pressure.
“We were overwhelmed by a sea of enquiries. It seems that there’s nothing quite like a lockdown to force people into reassessing their living environment; but what’s also interesting is that it has made everyone act more impulsively… the emotional aspect of what we do has really struck a chord.”
During lockdown, they upped their marketing game, even while there was nothing, strictly speaking, to market: “We’ve gained well over 100,000 Instagram followers since the start of the year, and the number of visitors to our website is up 130 per cent on last year.”
They’re not averse to a portion of that traffic consisting of armchair enthusiasts like me. “We’ve always tried to apply an editorial sensibility to The Modern House,” said Gibberd.
“In many ways, we look at it as a publication. Choosing which homes to list for sale, for example, is fundamentally an editorial decision.”
As for their distinctive aesthetic, which can be easy to mock once you’ve clicked on your fifth photograph of a willowy intern in Margaret Howell gazing sadly at a cheese plant under natural light, it is undeniably key to the agency’s success.
The presentation of a house or flat on the website will inevitably depend on whether it’s a new-build or has people living in it – a fairly austere space can be humanised by rogue toys or unauthorised art works.
“Sometimes we do some gentle styling of an interior, but these days it’s quite self-selecting – and our clients tend to know what they’re doing,” said Gibberd.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to use The Modern House as an estate agency. The only two places I’ve ever seen on the site that triggered a visceral desire to up sticks were a skilful conversion of a pilchard works in Cornwall, which would be a tricky commute if we ever had to start going into the office again, and architect Brian Housden’s house – a sort of miniature multistorey car park on the edge of Hampstead Heath, which was listed at a frankly unaffordable £3.25 million.
But until the day dawns when they go subscriber-only or install sales bots, I’m staying on the email list. For six months, it was the only travelling I got to do.