The Drive curves quietly through the green of Maresfield Park, past mature trees, grass verges and tall, polite hedges that offer glimmers of the homes beyond: slate roofs, mullion windows, block-paving, gravel.
Once part of a local manor house estate, the land here was requisitioned during the first world war and afterwards parcelled up and sold as separate plots. In the decades since, those plots have become architectural playgrounds of a sort, adventures in Georgian, Regency and Tudorbethan styles, updated and remodelled, with conservatories, annexes and bifold doors.
It would be easy to miss Bella and Nick Honness Roe’s house. Set back from the road, it is a low-lying brick building with a carport. Built in 1963, it was designed by local architects for a sea captain who retired to this landlocked corner of East Sussex. Save for its gull-wing roof, it has few of the frills of its neighbours.
The couple moved here in the autumn of 2015, shortly after the birth of their second child, leaving behind their two-bedroom flat with cantilevered stairs on the Golden Lane estate in London. “It was tiny,” says Bella. “Our living space was the size of what is now our playroom. And that was fine when we had one child. But then we were hankering after more space, and this place came up …”
For Bella, a film academic, and her husband, a marketing specialist, the appeal was not so much the location, near Gatwick airport and the M25, but the excitement of the house itself. She walks me through the building, from the kitchen along the light-filled corridor that leads to the bedrooms. “It’s all the original stuff,” she says. “The design of that period was very liveable – built-in furniture and wood-panelling, built-in Formica.”
They found the property via the Modern House, an estate agency that launched in 2005 and swiftly acquired a cult online following through its website, mailing list and, later, Instagram. It specialises in design-led, architecturally intriguing properties from former factories to art deco gems, modernist estates, urban spaces, loft conversions, new-builds and even partnerships with Turner prize-winning architects Assemble.
The peculiar thing about the Modern House is that it has become such a colossal hit with those who could never hope to afford even the cheapest of its listings. For many, it serves not so much as an estate agency but as something we can pleasurably gawp at, in much the same way as Holly Golightly in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, penniless but dreaming, was wont to stare at the window displays of the luxury jewellery store and feel that “nothing very bad could happen” there.
“I derive a lot of pleasure from looking at beautifully curated spaces,” says a fan of the website, Wilhemina Madeley, 30. “Although I don’t own a house myself and that continues to be a distant dream (especially in London), I often feel inspired by how spaces are transformed through colour, art and carefully selected items of furniture. More often than not, I look at the properties between £350,000 and £500,000 because I like to see what I could potentially afford in the future and how people have transformed small and challenging spaces.”
The Modern House, with its homes’ ordered beauty and outlandish prices, serves as a form of escapism. How sweet life would be, we think to ourselves, if we could spend our days in such open-plan, light-filled harmony.
Bella had long been on the Modern House mailing list. “I’ve always been slightly obsessed with modernist architecture,” she explains. When she first spotted the listing, it was at an emotionally charged time – shortly after the death of her mother, when Bella was four months pregnant.
“We weren’t even seriously looking, and I just said: ‘Let’s just go look at this house this weekend.’ It was the sort of house I’d always loved; it was geographically just about doable; it was just about workable for work; it wasn’t too far from London; it was near a town that looked nice …” That was in April. In July, they put in an offer. “It took us a really long time to get over taking that leap,” she says. “And in the end we just realised we would never know if it was right for us unless we just did it.”
There are other property sites with devoted followings – Cheap Old Houses, for instance, the Instagram celebration of largely US doer-uppers; sites dedicated to French chateaus and Tuscan farmhouses, all of which offer a diversion from the drudgery of our daily existence. But what marks out the Modern House is the enduring appeal of its aesthetic and the remarkable affection in which it is held. While other estate agents are often regarded with suspicion, the Modern House is thought of by some of its fans as a friend.
The Modern House London offices occupy the ground floor of St Alphege hall, a 1930s church hall in Borough, south London. Here, Matt Gibberd and his business partner, Albert Hill, employ 25 office-based staff; they have more across the country. Both 41, they met at school in Dorset, where Gibberd recalls that Hill “was very much always an entrepreneurial spirit. Even in those days he was always up to something. He decided he wanted to collect obscure training shoes, so he would buy these boxfresh Nikes and store them in his cupboard.” Hill would sell the trainers to collectors in Japan. “And then his dad had a garage studio where you couldn’t get through the door because it had all of Albert’s Memphis Group furniture in it.”
A few years later, when they were both journalists writing about architecture and design, Hill had what he describes as a “lightbulb moment” – realising he could apply the same approach he had taken to selling collectable trainers and furniture to selling collectable houses. “And I didn’t need to put them in my dad’s garage.”
Hill’s grandfather was an interior designer, and for a time his father worked finding land for a housing association. When he was nine, the family moved somewhat abruptly from south London to Lyme Regis, to an arts and crafts house on the seafront – his parents having once told its owners to let them know if they ever felt compelled to sell. “They said that would be the only reason that they would ever leave London,” he says. “And they got the call one day. So we had to pack up our London home, our London life and all go down to Dorset.” He smiles. “That’s one of the things that informed the business – the idea that, for one house, you would change everything.”
Gibberd, whose father and grandfather were both architects, had also inherited the family interest in buildings. “It sounds a bit pathetic now but aged 13 I would’ve asked my parents for a book on architecture and minimalism for Christmas,” he says. “We lived in quite a few different places, buying and selling around Islington,” he recalls. “And that’s where I also learned about the commercial side of housing. Which is a bit of a taboo subject, but is a reality and the reason why we’re able to do what we do. We always say we’re really lucky because we get to indulge in our passion, which is architecture and design, but we’ve also found a way of monetising it.”
The first property they marketed was Six Pillars in Dulwich, south London. “Which is a Tecton house,” Hill says. “Grade II*.” Although it was already on the market with another agency, Hill and Gibberd called the owner and told him about their fledgling company. “He said: ‘Great, let’s do it!’” Hill recalls. “He said the other agency didn’t understand the house.”
The house still took a while to sell, and not just because of the £1.3m price tag. “The thing about the pure modern movement houses, especially the early ones, is they’re museum pieces,” Hill says. “It’s always going to take quite an enlightened buyer who’s going to live in it in that slightly reverential way.
“Back then, investing all of your life savings in a house that was design-led, that was such an oddity in the market, you had to have pretty strong nerves,” he adds. “That’s changed considerably. It’s partly this shift to people being interested in experiences over objects. The space in your home is where you experience most of your life. Back then, a house was more seen as a bank account or just bricks and mortar.”
There has also been a shift in our approach to location. When the Modern House launched, it broke with the conventional estate agent model of serving only one geographical area. “Instead, we celebrate the house and try and attract people from beyond that area,” says Gibberd.
The bulk of the Modern House’s properties are in southern England, although there is a regional spread. At any one time, its roster might range from a £95,000 chapel in Suffolk to a £10m architect-designed house in Hampstead, north London.
“The lower end of the market always sells so well,” says Hill. “One of the founding principles was: it’s not about price, it really is about design, and we’ve always tried to keep as broad a price spectrum as we can.”
“It’s extraordinary, the rise of interest in these homes,” says John Grindrod, author of Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. “I think Grand Designs has had a bit to do with it, and I think it’s partly a reaction against developers’ houses of the 80s and 90s – heritage design, fake Tudor, with small rooms and small windows. Instead, these houses are open, with entire glazed walls.”
It’s part of an ongoing see-saw of architectural taste, Grindrod argues, from the Tudorbethan styles of the 30s to the Scandi-modern design of the 50s, and then back to mock Tudor in the 80s. “And that see-saw, it’s kind of an argument about how we want to live. Whether it’s the shy, retiring, heritage way that’s slightly more anonymous, or these forward-looking, open, statement modern houses you can see into, which are the opposite of curtain-twitching British life. They are almost stage sets for people’s lives.”
The Modern House has been “more insulated than most” to the uncertainty of Brexit, says Hill. Still, the precarious market is one factor that has led the Modern House to consider entering the rental market – offering a stepping stone, perhaps, to the design-conscious people who regularly dip into their listings, but could only dream of owning. It would also open up a new market for the company, whose greatest problem might be that, while the average length of home ownership in the UK is seven years, the Modern House rarely sees re-sales.
The kind of property it features has evolved as well. “Aesthetically, there’s certainly been a shift away from lightweight structure to more heavy brick, more grounded architecture,” says Gibberd. Hill agrees: “The timber and render look has been replaced by a heavier solidity, references to classicism.” A desire for sturdiness perhaps, in a time of political and economic flux.
The Modern House has moved on, too, from the aesthetic that made its name. “It went very modern movement for a while, but as soon as it feels like something has become embedded in the consciousness, that’s the time to change it,” Gibberd says. “So we thought: ‘We need to look further back now.’”
Still, its mailing list remains a source of fascination, inspiration and fantasy for many. “There are lots of interiors magazines and blogs, but for people who look at our website, it’s got that extra level of it being real,” Gibberd says.