Michael Egan

Distinctive designer of Thirties cinema interiors
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The Independent Online

Michael Henry Egan, architect and interior designer: born St Médard-en-Jalles, France 11 November 1907; married 1951 Ann Barkby (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971); died London 23 October 2003.

In the 1930s, cinema work provided a golden opportunity for bold and adventurous young designers and architects. Michael Egan played a key role in devising an astonishingly high proportion of the many innovative, flamboyant but effective cinema interiors of the period.

Born near Bordeaux in 1907, the son of an Irish wine merchant and a French mother, he was brought up in Limerick and at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. In 1925, he became a student at the Architectural Association but left before completing his courses, to replace the architect working with the French decorators Marc Henri and Laverdet, then busy on theatres and cinemas. In 1988 he recalled,

I was just a draughtsman, made working drawings. I detailed Gaston Laverdet's design for the Whitehall Theatre and the Duchess Theatre. The very first cinema I worked on was the Playhouse Dewsbury. Robert Cromie was the architect. Things were very bad in 1931 in England. There was no work at all, except in cinemas.

By this time he was collaborating with the company's senior artist Eugene Mollo, half-Russian and slightly older. The pair got on so well that they set up in business for themselves after their bosses returned to France. As Mollo and Egan, the partnership provided interior designs for dozens of cinemas, their work usually being attributed to the architect. Their closest association was with Robert Cromie.

At the Regal Wimbledon (1933), Egan remembered,

We designed the whole thing: all we got there was the brick shell and the roof trusses and we had to shape the whole interior. Our inspiration for that was the big locks and gates of the Panama Canal. And we were contractors. We had a subsidiary company, M. and E. Equipment Ltd, who did the light steel bracketing and expanded metal on which the plaster was formed.

Other work for Cromie included the Ritz Southend, Regal Godalming and Ritz Chelmsford (all 1935), with their streamlined ribbed- plaster interiors. Sometimes, as at the Walton-on-Thames and Bridlington Regals in 1938, the team worked for the promoter rather than the architect.

In general, Mollo provided vivid murals, other sprayed paint decoration, and the jazzy carpet patterns. Egan was more involved in the decorative plasterwork and in the structural aspects of their schemes. In many instances, including the Plaza Worthing (1934), Plaza Sutton (1934) and Palace Chatham (1936), their contribution extended as far as the design of payboxes, organ consoles and main curtains. An important associate was the deaf and dumb Russian artist Alexander Bilibin.

One of the team's most striking devices was the repetitive use of decorative squares on the splay walls to each side of the proscenium opening. At three Embassy cinemas for Chesham, Esher and Waltham Cross, and at the Gaumont Oldham (all 1937), the squares were individually lit. "Just in front was lighting in the shape of an electric light bulb in a masking box . . . I thought it was very effective and economical. Esher's was the first we did [in that style]," said Egan recently.

Mollo and Egan designed a striking auditorium scheme for the Odeon Yeovil which relied on reflected light. "The thing was to provide reflecting surfaces. It was done by projectors from a number of sources. It wasn't static and the light would be changing all the time, on dimmers," Egan recalled. At Yeovil, the Gaumont Rose Hill and the Odeon North Watford (all 1937), the team pioneered the continuation of the brightly lit ceiling down the side walls to a diagonal line descending towards the screen.

Many of Mollo and Egan's later 1930s schemes were for the ABC chain, "full of ornament, not very good", according to Egan. With the outbreak of the Second World War, cinema construction stopped and Egan joined up, helping to camouflage many key buildings from the enemy.

After the war, he resumed his career as a designer, doing excellent work on many shoe shops for Saxone and Lilley & Skinner; clothing stores including C&A Modes; banks such as the Bank of Scotland's premises in Haymarket, London; the Union Castle Line's offices in Bond Street; Wakefield Market; and even some warehouses. Much of this work was done through a new architectural partnership, Egan and Pytel, based in Hanover Square, London. One of Egan's last jobs, in semi-retirement, was a retirement home in Hook, Hampshire.

Changing fashions and regular refits doomed much of his work to a short life. In particular, Mollo and Egan's 1930s cinemas have been almost entirely demolished, ruthlessly modernised and subdivided, or converted to other uses. Though recently listed as a bingo hall, the Gaumont Rose Hill retains an inappropriate lighting scheme.

Two cinemas remained open, with their distinctive plasterwork intact, long enough to become listed buildings. Despite this protection, the team's glorious treatment of the auditorium at the Odeon Scarborough (1936) was almost entirely scrapped in its conversion to live theatre use. Happily, Egan's front sidewall decoration at the Embassy, Esher, survived the cinema's recent subdivision and rebranding as an Odeon, to be enjoyed today not least as a monument to one of the liveliest design talents of the 1930s.

Allen Eyles

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