Mad About . . .

Re-inventing Estate Agency: an interview with The Modern House

25th June 2020

As regular readers will know I, and many of you, am slightly obsessed with The Modern House, a UK estate agency that has reinvented the genre, not just by apparently agreeing to sell only beautiful houses, but by turning itself into a sort of magazine providing endless inspiration and aspiration to those of us who have no intention of moving but just – literally – like looking at the pictures.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

I remember a graphic designer friend dropping round one afternoon on a rainy Friday on his way back from his office. “What have you been doing today,” the Mad Husband asked as he poured him a drink.

“Oh I couldn’t face doing any work, so I spent the afternoon living my fantasy life on The Modern House, he said. He is not alone. So I was, as you can imagine, thrilled when the co-founder Matt Gibberd, agreed to be interviewed for the podcast and you can listen here.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

Founded in 2005, The Modern House, showcases modernist and contemporary homes (and sometimes period ones that have been beautifully decorated) in a way that looks more like a lifestyle magazine. It’s completely design-led and the photography is stunning. And believe me I look at a lot of ropy estate agency photography for my regular Househunter posts.

Matt’s background as a design writer also comes through as the details always include information about the architecture, the style and the studio which carried out any of the refurbishment works. He is also married to the designer and sculptor Faye Toogood, of which more later and whose classic roly poly chair you can see below.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

But I began by asking him about the housing market as we emerge from lockdown. To which he said simply: “Busy, busy, busy”.

There is, it seems, a lot of pent up demand as three months of staring at the same four walls has caused many of us to reassess what we have and what we want from our homes. There is also the bigger question of whether the new work from home ethos will have a knock-on effect on where we want to live in the future. If we are no longer tied to a commutable distance from the office, might we be able to live in a larger, more rural location and only travel to an office once or twice a week?

This led us to taking about what we need from a house if it is to be a home? Matt is quick and unequivocal – it’s all about the light for him.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

“Light is the key element of a house and its success [as a home] is down to way that the house harnesses that natural light, because it is so critical to our health and well-being and the health of our immune systems. We spend a lot of time in floodlit offices and our kids beaver away under compact fluorescent lights in school and we owe it to ourselves to turn the lights off when we get home and use the natural light as much as we can.”

Matt’s theory is that if you can look directly at the naked filament of a bulb it’s in the wrong place and needs moving. For him, and many of us, the biggest scourge of modern interiors is the runway of ceiling lights you find in kitchens.

He prefers wall sconces, table lights, floor lamps and, best of all; candles. “They are the most natural, romantic and flattering form of light there is.”

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

As estate agent who spends his days assessing and valuing properties, Matt also, it won’t surprise you to learn, has thoughts on space. But, unlike most he doesn’t hold with the notion that bigger is always better.

“We need a variety of different spaces in our houses. We tend to get hung up on the idea of building the biggest house, but it’s not just about size. We need big rooms for socialising and [it’s great if they have] lots of volume – high ceilings – and lots of natural light so we can slurp wine and the kids can ride tricycles round (he is a father of three including a set of twins) but we also need nests and places of refuge where we can decompress.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

“Bedrooms and bathrooms can be smaller with lower ceilings and narrower doors so that they can cosset and embrace us.”

And once you have identified that you can work out what sort of building you want to live in to support you or how you might want to reconfigure the space to suit you.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

Matt and Faye are adept at this now having moved from a Georgian house in North London to a modernist 60s property and now out to a more classic Victorian villa in Winchester – they live in an apartment within it. While Matt loyally admits to agreeing with his designer wife when it comes to the interiors, he also feels that the different houses dictate what they need in terms of decor.

So the Georgian house was colourful (in his terms), the modernist one was white and now, one again it’s very white although as someone who grew up in a white Georgian house, Matt also concedes that that might be the signifier of home for him.

image courtesy of the modern house

image courtesy of the modern house

When it comes to the dream home, he refers to his co-founder Albert Hill who has a constantly updated notebook of features he finds and likes in the houses they visit with a view to compiling the perfect house. But, of course, by its very nature it would be a Frankenstein’s Monster of a place since, like most of us he sometimes wants to drink Bovril in a beach hut and at others desires more space so everyone can spread out.

In terms of his favourite pieces of design what does this design expert who is married to a designer wish for? Of course anything created by Faye, including the kitchen table which is covered in car paint and lacquered and which is totally forgiving of the mess that three young children can create, but also the classic Alvar Aalto stool which works both as a stool, a bedside table and an occasional table in the sitting room.

table by faye toogood that is covered in car paint and lacquered

table by faye toogood that is covered in car paint and lacquered

All that talk of home at the end of lockdown led Sophie and I to muse on the concept of what creates a home. I think it’s more of a feeling than a noun and certainly – speakers of other languages can come in on comments here –  Is “home” a uniquely English word? French and Spanish talk about “la maison” and “la casa” and certainly, as a French speaker, I never heard anyone say “ma maison”; I think they would say “chez moi”. But even that doesn’t, for me at least, have quite the same ring as “home” to it. But perhaps I am wrong. I’d love to know about other languages and what their word for “home” is.

my outdoor living room complete with floor lamp and sofa

my outdoor living room complete with floor lamp (now discontinued) and sofa from made.com 

Lastly we spoke about gardens as the sun has come back. Sophie, as the mother of a nine-year-old, is all about creating a festival vibe in her garden whereas I am more about making an outdoor sitting room. That said, if you want a padding pool that isn’t all primary colours check these out from WA Green (link in caption).

pools from wa green

pools from wa green

And, of course, I had to include Lucy Tiffney’s fabulous painted garden bench. Meanwhile, Camellia Odojukan is in the process of creating a garden bench from old pallets. Rain had stopped construction when we spoke last week but she is hoping to finish it soon and I will add a picture when she has. In the meantime you can look at her highlights for DIY Pallet Sofa.

painted garden bench by lucy tiffney

painted garden bench by lucy tiffney

That concludes this series of the podcast. It has all been recorded remotely between London and Brighton and we have tackled everything from lockdown DIY, to the nature of home and post-pandemic design with guests on lighting, making do and mending, colour and architecture. I hope you have enjoyed it. You can catch up with all episodes here. A final big thank you to Kate Taylor and Sarah Cuddon of Feast Collective for producing under difficult circumstances and to our incredibly supportive sponsors Geberit.

 

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  • Denise 7th July 2020 at 7:25 am

    In Geordie it’s ‘yem’ but exact same meaning 🏡

  • Kate 29th June 2020 at 9:22 pm

    In Hungarian we have a separate word for home: “otthon”. It means the same for everyone, and it has a very cosy, pleasant, warm undertone. 🙂

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 30th June 2020 at 9:25 am

      That’s interesting, thank you for sharing. I don’t know a single Hungarian word – well, one, now!

  • NotOwler 26th June 2020 at 7:10 pm

    In Finnish “home” translates straight to “koti”, and funnily enough, “home” means “mold” or “mildew” in Finnish – back when wall stickers and plaques reading Home were all the rage, it took some concentration to not read people labelling their living rooms moldy.

  • Leslie-Anne 26th June 2020 at 6:10 pm

    My Mexican husband tells me that the word for home in Spanish is hogar, which also means hearth.

  • Debs 26th June 2020 at 8:32 am

    “Foyer” means home? Or where you light a fire?
    As a Birmingham person It IS the fire! 🤣

  • Eve 25th June 2020 at 5:18 pm

    The word we use in french for “home” would be “foyer”(that’s what we’re told when we start learning English, to explain the concept of “home” to us.
    “Foyer” is not really used in our current language any more, and interestingly (to me), it means “the place where you light the fire”

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 26th June 2020 at 10:16 am

      Yes I was aware of that expression but also thought it had fallen out of use. That said the idea of the home hearth, keep the home fires burning and all that does carry the same sort of idea.

  • Leslie-Anne 25th June 2020 at 3:01 pm

    The painted garden bench makes me so happy. Carefree summer anyone?

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