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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Sophie Sims

Originally from North Wales, I am a design historian, early career museum professional, and freelance art and design copywriter/researcher based in London.

Cover photograph credit: RIBA Archives, A39/105.

Degree Details

School of Arts & HumanitiesV&A/RCA History of Design (MA)RCA2023 at Battersea and Kensington

RCA Battersea, Studio Building, First floor

A picture of Sophie smiling.


Before joining the RCA, I studied English at Oxford University, where I developed an interest in material text histories. My undergraduate research focused on the novels of Thomas Hardy, using the maps produced to accompany his writing to argue that changes in cartographic technology in the late nineteenth century affected the way he conceptualised space and movement.

My research at the RCA has been varied. My object essay looked at eighteenth and nineteenth century samplers as a form of life (and death) writing. My dissertation uses cinemas as a starting point to think about the development in 'modern' decorative styles and techniques in the interwar period. Both were shaped by an interest in decorative interiors as well as the experience of space, something carried through from my undergraduate research.

Painting the pictures: architectural decorators and the 1930s cinema

For the price of admission, the fantastic, tragic, shocking, and glamorous narratives of 1930s cinema were brought to the routine lives of millions of Britons. The decoration of the interwar cinema exuded an other-worldliness, taking those who entered away from the harsher realities of interwar Britain and into a place that offered a comfortable and luxurious modern experience.

‘All this creates a unique atmosphere which is known and described as the Mollo and Egan Touch.’ Mollo & Egan Ltd., 'Plastic Paint'

A flurry of firms dedicated to decorating the new cinemas built in the period emerged. My dissertation focuses on one, Mollo & Egan Ltd., who were prolific decorators throughout the 1930s. They have been largely forgotten about in interwar art, design, and cinema histories, despite the successful reputation they established at the time. It considers the way that the firm represented itself as spearheading a new ‘modern’ approach to cinema decoration, one marked by its innovative and experimental practices. It situates them amongst the other developments in modern design in Britain at the time — from the Art in Industry report, to the work of émigré Modernists and the continental Modernist style, to contemporary decorative trends. I use examples of specific cinemas including The Astoria, Folkestone, which the firm themselves described ‘easily […] one of the most modern cinemas in the country’. It questions how the people using the cinema engaged with and experienced this decorative modernity by drawing on local newspaper reports and other archival material.

It understands the firm – who referred to themselves as architectural decorators, as opposed to artistic decorators – as both a product of and response to contemporary thinking around British design. I draw on the likes of cinema trade literature, photographs, and adverts to garner an understanding what Mollo and Egan Ltd. were an extension of, a reflection of, and a deviation from.

It was difficult to know ‘where the architect left off and the interior designers started’. Michael Egan, in conversation with Allen Eyles, Picture House 1998.
Showing an advert with a list of the (over) 100 cinemas that Mollo and Egan had decorated.
Mollo & Egan Ltd. advert (1938).From 'Cinema News and Property Gazette', 1938.
A picture showing a textured metallic plastic paint.
Sample (1936)Plastic paint sample from Mollo & Egan Ltd.'s promotional booklet, 'Plastic Paint'.
Showing a modern pay-box in the lobby of a cinema.
Pay-box, The Astoria Cinema, Folkestone (1935)From 'The Architectural Review', 1938.

Mollo & Egan Ltd., 'Plastic Paint' (1936)

'In 1931 when the firm started, modern style was hardly known on the wide market of cinema construction and without exaggeration we can say that we have done a great deal towards introducing a modern conception of the cinema interior.'
'… in developing our method of decoration we soon found that we had to design practically everything ourselves. All fittings obtainable were hopelessly out of date [...] [it has all] had to be especially designed on the entirely new line; this, it is added, is what they ‘can offer to [their] clients for professional services.'
Page of an article about paint, showing Mollo & Egan mural work in a large photograph of a cinema wall.
'Paint', showing Mollo & Egan mural work (1939)From 'The Architectural Review', March 1939.
Showing a mural made up of a photographic montage. Includes a picture of Brighton Pavilion, the sea, a fisherman, a tree.
Mural at Embassy Court, Brighton (1936)Wells Coates and E. McKnight Kauffer produced the mural using a technology patented by Mollo & Egan Ltd. From 'Cinema and Theatre Construction', 1936.

Robert Beacroft Barker Award

V&A Museum.