The Man With The Keys To The UK’s Most Desirable Homes

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The Man With The Keys To The UK’s Most Desirable Homes

Words by Mr Jim Merrett | Photography by Ms Lesley Lau | Styling by Ms Sophie Watson

4 March 2024

“My style really depends on my environment,” Mr James Klonaris says. “I’m not someone who could naturally survive with a very small wardrobe – I’d love to be that person. But for work, we don’t often wear suits.”

He doesn’t sound entirely convinced by this set of circumstances. “I actually miss the tie,” he says, lamenting his “huge, redundant collection”. He’s convinced that, these days, they can be worn in a relaxed, even rebellious manner. “But rather than purposefully trying to buck the trend, I tend to wear quite monochrome outfits and to be on the smart side of casual at all times, really.”

Klonaris doesn’t look like your typical estate agent, or at least doesn’t dress like one. Then again, The Modern House, the company that employs him, isn’t your typical estate agency, either. It was founded in 2005 by lifestyle journalists Messrs Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill as “a marketplace for things that are slightly outside of the ordinary,” Klonaris says, perhaps underselling his portfolio. Properties “that are design-led, and to find an audience for those and an appreciation. If you were looking for this kind of house, where would you go?” The result is a realtor that’s also a mood board for those with extremely good taste.

While the more vocal of its highly engaged 765k Instagram followers might have very fixed opinions about its aesthetic, what actually constitutes a The Modern House property is subjective. “Even internally, we don’t always agree,” Klonaris says. “But we’re very careful about what we do put on the site.” Its properties are united by a thoughtfulness of design, no matter whether applied to a one-bedroom apartment or a palatial countryside house. There might be a mid-century bent. It’s safe to assume there will be expansive windows and thoughtful materials – wood, steel, Hempcrete at one site in Cambridgeshire – will often be deployed. But even the artsier properties don’t come at the expense of comfort. “People tend not to buy architects merely for the name or provenance – they’ll buy a nice home.”

As a result, The Modern House has become a signifier of its own: having your home featured on its pages is a badge of honour for a certain segment of culturally informed, high net-worth sophisticates. The Financial Times, in a 2019 profile of its founders, noted that “the agency is as much of a lifestyle brand as it is a seller of houses”.

But back to the clothes. “It’s not like there’s a uniform at The Modern House,” Klonaris says. “But we were always quite symbiotic in the way that we would dress.”

From the outset, the unofficial dress code was “informed by Toogood [the design agency run by Ms Faye Toogood, Gibberd’s wife], which translated quite well to our professional appearance. To traverse the design world and the rather more suited-and-booted industry.” It’s a point of difference from the less-flattering depiction of his line of work, of slick wideboys in branded Minis. “It just takes one person to turn up in a shiny suit to ruin everything,” Klonaris jokes.

All of which goes someway to explain Klonaris’ reliance on a monochrome palette. “There’s probably an element of just wanting to be taken seriously,” he says. “Or removing the risk of not being taken seriously because of some outrageous pop of colour. I have colleagues who can get away with wearing lots of colour and fun things. But for me, I quite like to maybe remove the flamboyance from my appearance. Most of my days are spent meeting clients and discussing quite serious things.”

For his clients, art, music, property and clothing are all part of a package, all signifiers of good design – and that’s what he often ends up talking about while out on viewings.

“People tend not to buy architects merely for the name or provenance – they’ll buy a nice home”

“I think one can wear anything as long as you appear like you put some thought into it and are presentable,” he concedes. “It’s difficult to be overdressed, I’d much rather be overdressed than underdressed.”

He says he’s become “more outrageous” with his formal shoe selection, citing some white Gucci loafers that, nervously relegated for at least a decade, now regularly come out for family weddings in Greece or Italy. But denim, particularly, is reserved for off-duty attire. “I tend to dress like a cowboy at the weekends,” he says. “A sort of Wyoming farmhand.”

The 42-year-old father of two has worked for the agency for eight years, long enough to see the workforce swell from eight to almost 10 times that today. He heads the prime department, the top-tier portfolio within an agency noted for its top-tier portfolio. What that means as a quantifiable baseline figure fluctuates depending on where you are looking. “If you can imagine two interacting circles, we operate in that section between luxury and design,” he says.

Something else that sets The Modern House apart is its lack of a bricks-and-mortar premises – here, that tidily curated Instagram feed does the heavy lifting. And, while itself based in London, the agency doesn’t get bogged down in geographic areas per se, with properties across the south of England – and as far as the Isle of Skye.

“A lot of our buyers are quite agnostic about where they’re going to move to,” Klonaris says, ripping up that mantra about location. Within London, this can mean postcodes or general intercardinal directions. “It’s more about the house. And for those outside of London, people say to us, ‘We’re just looking for something interesting within three hours of London.’ It used to be two, but then the pandemic happened, and it became three.”

Klonaris describes himself as a “frustrated architect”, and certainly his job isn’t that of a straight-up realtor. “You become friend to people,” he says. “Sellers are often going through difficult patches in their lives. So, it is part psychologist, part mediator. And that’s all after the creative aspect of seeing houses, being involved in the photoshoot and how we approach that with sensitivity. It’s all-encompassing.”

There’s a sense that this is heightened in the prime sector. “We deal with a lot of celebrities and high-profile people who want discretion, who might have property portfolios,” Klonaris says. His role comes tangled in NDAs, so while he is tight-lipped when it comes to names, some are names that you will definitely be familiar with. (Think of the calibre of Hollywood actors you can picture emerging unscathed from a building as it explodes, rather than viewing one.)

“Some of the best houses in London you’d walk past and you wouldn’t know were there”

“A big part, I think, of navigating this industry successfully is nurturing relationships with people. We have quite a lot of repeat buyers.” He talks about his clients sometimes as collectors, only what they collect is houses.

“There is an element of sales,” he says. “But I think our approach is to not be too salesy. It is an honest, candid approach. That, beyond all else, is the most important thing. You can reassure clients and sell yourself with knowledge and with track record, and that’s what we do.” Half of his business is based on recommendation, he says.

This is against a backdrop where estate agents currently hover above only politicians, advertising executives and – gulp – journalists at the very bottom of the list of professions ranked in terms of public trust. “It’s got that reputation deservedly over the years,” Klonaris says of the real estate industry in the UK. “As a result, it kind of attracts the wrong people sometimes. And certain companies enjoy that culture – they want it to be cutthroat. But some of the best agents in London are just really nice people. It’s a changing industry. Not fast enough, but it is changing.”

Change comes factored into Klonaris’ own career trajectory, which began in finance then art consultancy before shifting to his current vocation. “Finance was probably an under-use of my both talents and passions,” he says. “But it’s something that you fall into and it’s difficult to get out. And at the time I left university, it was just difficult enough to get jobs. Art was probably a severe reaction to that.”

Art is something he still dabbles in, on the rare occasions he gets the chance (see the aforementioned two children). And while he has no formal training, his father studied in Florence under the famed portrait painter Mr Pietro Annigoni, so some of that brushwork must’ve rubbed off. Given that Klonaris is currently renovating his own home, he says he’s more likely to be building then painting walls than canvas.

This understanding of art, though, feeds into his job, where often the properties on his books could themselves be considered architectural masterpieces. For example, Silverlight, The Modern House listing that features as the backdrop for this photoshoot, is the work of Sir David Adjaye. Serving as a working powder puff factory until the turn of this century, this canal-side building in west London has found a new lease of life as a striking living space. Not that you could tell from the street outside.

“It’s a pretty dramatic thing in a fairly congruous environment,” says Klonaris. “Stealth is a useful architectural technique. Some of the best houses in London you’d walk past and you wouldn’t know were there. They’re hidden from sight and sometimes subterranean, sometimes they’re behind a very humble facade. We’ve sold quite a few of those.”

The Modern House team have a foot in the door to those houses. But they’re not about to let just anyone in. Buyers famously undergo a rigorous vetting system. “Legacy is very important to sellers, they really do want to choose in some circumstances who’s going to look after it next,” Klonaris says. “It’s not always the highest bidder that sellers choose – sometimes they will choose the people that they think are going to do the best job looking after it.”

There is, after all, a responsibility that comes with owning a property from The Modern House. And buyers aren’t mere homeowners. “Whether they think of themselves as custodians when they buy it is one thing, but after some time living in a house… They’re almost like organic beings, aren’t they, houses? The more time you spend with them, the more you get to learn their foibles and the way that they behave and the nurturing that they need. So, when people leave those houses, that’s often the conversation that we’ll have.”

Likewise, Klonaris is in it for the long term. And there are always surprises out there. “Quite often, it’s the people with the best houses that are the most nervous about approaching us. They’ll say, ‘I’m not sure if my house is quite good enough.’”

The market moves fast, but relationships take time – and his rule is that valuations are always worthwhile. “I’m still having conversations that are eight years in the making,” he says.