A chat with Matt Gibberd of The Modern House
Estate agents – we all know the clichés – famously unpopular, branded Minis, flashy suits and stretching the English language to misleading limits. But not all estate agents are alike, and leading the evidence for the defence is The Modern House.
The Modern House was set up almost on a whim in 2005 by two design editors, Matt Gibberd, then of World of Interiors and Albert Hill, then of Wallpaper*, to sell a 1934 house in Sydenham, London by the architects who’d also designed the penguin pool at London Zoo. The property, Six Pillars, had proved unsellable by more traditional estate agents. Matt and Albert used all their media contacts, running the business from their homes, eventually getting their first sale. Since then, the business has grown fast, staying online only, no storefronts, focusing purely on properties built since 1930 that ‘reflect the central themes of Modernism’, and which they must consider to be of architectural significance. Their secondary intention is to help rehabilitate modern architecture which has often been pilloried by more traditionally minded commentators.
Having sold hundreds of stylish properties, they started realising the limitations of refusing anything that didn’t conform to their modernist aesthetic, especially as here were thousands of pre-1930 properties that had plenty to recommend them style-wise. Thus Inigo was born in 2021, a sister site to The Modern House, named after Inigo Jones, architect of the Queen’s House at Greenwich, with a remit to sell remarkable Edwardian, Georgian and Victorian houses in Britain. With so many properties built in those eras, Inigo looks set to open up huge new markets, attract a lot of new customers and add a new aesthetic more about pattern and colour as opposed to The Modern House’s embrace of minimalism.
Inigo’s site is also home to The Guild, a group of creative minds and taste-makers, including co-founder of Collagerie Lucinda Chambers, Duncan Campbell of design studio Campbell-Rey and editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman magazine Penny Martin, who exemplify what Inigo stands for and inform its choices.
We caught up with Matt to find out more.
Is it true that you started The Modern House almost by chance?
We certainly didn’t have a business plan or any defined agenda. We started The Modern House in our twenties because it gave us both a way of indulging our obsession with design and architecture. The early days were spent poring over books and magazines, touring the country in our beaten-up cars, and surreptitiously photographing any interesting-looking residential building we could find. We used endless pads of A4 paper to write a dossier on each one, which included numerical ratings – a bit like Top Trumps for architecture fans! Even if the phone never rang and it ended up being a failure, we knew that we would learn a lot about buildings, about people’s relationships with their homes, and about how to run a business.
Did either of you have a background in selling property?
I once worked as a Saturday viewings assistant for an estate agency in Islington, but it didn’t last very long because I kept getting parking tickets, which meant I was making a net loss. Other than that, we had no experience of the industry whatsoever. Looking back on it, this has served us very well, because we’ve been able to think freely and use our instincts.
How did your previous experience feed into what you did with The Modern House?
I was a features writer and editor at The World of Interiors for five years, and Albert worked at Wallpaper*, the Guardian and Blueprint. We’ve taken this editorial sensibility and applied it to estate agency, using storytelling and beautiful photography to build a brand that people seem to identify with.
Did you expect The Modern House to take off the way it did?
We had no preconceived idea about how it would go. For the first few years, we operated from day to day, trying to pay the bills. We were just starting to build some momentum when the recession hit in the latter part of 2007, and we had lots of discussions during that year about knocking it on the head and doing something else. Fortunately, we managed to plot a way through it and emerge the other side.
Could you describe what sets The Modern House, and Inigo, apart from the kind of estate agent most of us are used to?
It’s about having shared values with our community of buyers and sellers. The people we employ come from all sorts of backgrounds, including the music industry, art galleries and auction houses. They understand the value of design, and they are honest, hard-working people who genuinely want to do a good job. Intelligence and empathy are at the heart of everything we do. We believe that every home has a story to tell, and many people visit our websites to find inspiration for their refurbishment project rather than to simply transact. The Modern House and Inigo are both recognisable brands that people feel they can learn from and that represent their own view of the world – there probably aren’t too many of those in the property business.
What do you look for in a property that makes it right for The Modern House?
It’s about timeless principles like space, light, craftsmanship and a connection to nature. Above all, we always ask ourselves this: is it a home that lifts the spirits?
How do you find the properties that you sell? Do owners come to you or do you keep a close watch on properties that interest you?
Word of mouth has always been the most important source of work for us. We have nearly half-a-million Instagram followers, which is more than any other real estate company in the world, so there is a community in place that we have worked very hard to nurture. We publish a magazine, we have a YouTube channel and a podcast series, and we do events and collaborations with other like-minded brands, all of which are about raising awareness and inspiring people.
Do you live in properties that you found through The Modern House?
I bought my previous house in Highgate, which was designed for his own use by the architect Walter Segal in the 1960s, after I was invited to see it by the owner. There was a slightly awkward moment where I had to explain to him that I couldn’t value it because I rather fancied it for myself! He was very good about it, though. Albert owns a lovely holiday cottage in Wales that he bought through The Modern House. One of the perils of the job is being winked at by a tempting new house all the time.
What sparked the decision to move into older properties with Inigo?
We have considered it for many years, but only now do we feel that we have the right foundations in place to do it properly. We employ more than 50 staff and have a very well-established way of working. But it also seems like the right time from a cultural perspective – we’ve been galvanised by the increasing interest in exuberant colour, pattern and texture in fashion, interiors and the decorative arts. Inigo as a brand is optimistic and a bit irreverent, and at a time when people are thinking about their homes more than ever, we hope that it will really resonate.
Could you tell us about the idea behind The Guild?
The Guild is a select group of creatives and thinkers who we feel share Inigo’s sense of taste: people like Lucinda Chambers, the legendary fashion director of British Vogue, Plain English co-founder Katie Fontana, fashion designer Charlie Casely-Hayford, and Penny Martin, the Editor-in-Chief of The Gentlewoman. Their involvement helps people understand what Inigo stands for. We will involve them in editorial content and events – for example, Duncan Campbell of Campbell-Rey, who is a Guild member, recently interviewed his brilliant interior-designer friend Beata Heuman for the Inigo website.
Are there any properties you’ve sold that really stand out for you?
One of my favourites is a house beside Highgate Cemetery, built by the late architect John Winter in the 1960s. It’s a rectilinear structure clad in rusted CorTen steel, with frameless glazing. We sold it for his family after he died, and it was in a bit of a sorry state, but the integrity of the architecture was very much intact, along with his original Modernist furniture (he was a personal friend of Charles and Ray Eames). Another that stands out is a house designed by Walter Greaves in 1981, a complex of gently curved forms wrapped in cedar, overlooking a river near Chichester. Many of our staff cite it as their all-time favourite.
Were you ever tempted to move beyond the digital realm and open a storefront for The Modern House?
Our HQ in Southwark is a hybrid in some ways. It’s contained within a converted 1930s church hall, with big spaces where we can house our team but also hold events, talks and screenings. We like the fact that it’s squirrelled away on a quiet backstreet. If we opened a storefront on a high street then there’s a danger that we would become associated with that particular location, when we really want to remain neutral from a geographical perspective.
Do you have any plans to further expand the business in the future?
We are constantly debating ideas and opportunities at board level, and part of our success derives from learning when to say no. Having just launched Inigo, we really want to concentrate on making it the best it can be. Having two complementary brands that occupy distinct spaces gives us a broad framework to explore more avenues. We want to do more film, for example, and also publishing – I’ve just written a book.
Images: a selection of interiors provided by Inigo and The Modern House