June 4, 1918

John Decuir born in San Fransisco 

 

1924-1930

At age 6, DeCuir begins to study the violin. After discovering the paintbrush, DeCuir splits his time between mastering the violin and the canvas. He practices the violin each morning, meanwhile drawing pictures in his head to redraw later from memory. DeCuir eventually acquires the ability the draw from one corner to the other like a laser printer.

 
 
 

1931-1935

DeCuir becomes a concert violinist.

 

DeCuir attends Montebello High School.

 
 
 

1936

DeCuir is hired as a matte shot illustrator at Universal Studios. 

1936-1938

DeCuir studies at Chouinard Art Institute under Herb Ryman. 

 
 
 

1938

As a new employee at Universal, DeCuir would arrive early and brew a pot of coffee. By doing this simple thing, he caught the attention of the company’s producer. He would stop by each morning for coffee and soon enough, he began to take note of John’s work.

A cup of coffee got him his first job. That along with a great deal of talent, but the coffee helped.
— John DeCuir Jr.
 
 
 

1939

DeCuir sketched a magnificent bar for the film Destry Rides Again, but was told that the bar simply could not be made on the film’s low, b-movie budget. But when the director saw the bar, he sent the script back to the writers and told them to make a story worthy of this bar and they raised the budget accordingly.

 
 
 

1940

John marries his wife.

1946

DeCuir is promoted to Art Director at Universal Studios.

 
 
 

1951

20th Century Fox hires DeCuir as an Art Director. 

 
 
 

1953

The Robe

The first film to be released in widescreen using new CinemaScope anamorphic lenses, The Robe was a breakthrough for the film industry. DeCuir was one of the first to design sets in this new format which was nearly twice as wide as previous films. His work transitioning to the new layout was instrumental in future composition and set design.

 
 
 

1955 - 1956

The KinG and I (1956)

DeCuir’s colorful and breathtaking watercolors in The King and I leave the impression of unexpected romance. The movie is based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and follows the story of a schoolteacher who travels to Siam to teach the young princes and princesses, and ends up finding love in their King. 

While filming the ballroom scene for The King and I, director Walter Lang insisted that the cameras continue to back up in order to get more of DeCuir’s enormous set into the shot. He kept backing up until he bumped into the studio wall, but it was still not enough. Soon after, a ten foot hole was carved into the studio wall to allow for the cameras to continue to back up and capture more of the set.

Initially, Yul Brynner was opposed to wearing pink in the ballroom scene. He said that he felt too frilly and would not stand for it in the final recording. But after seeing how the set complimented his look so well at the color test, he rose for a standing ovation and praised DeCuir on his ability to make him look so manly.

 
 
 

1957 - 1958

South Pacific (1958)

During World War II on an island in the South Pacific, love blooms between a nurse and a Frenchman both caught up in the war. Sketching with charcoal and watercolor, DeCuir uses vibrant colors to design island scenes for the movie South Pacific, based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

While filming the “Bali Ha’I” sequence for South Pacific, director Josh Logan wanted colored lenses that would subtly change the look of the scene. However, the color changes in this scene are more than subtle, and they were the result of a fight. Colorist Leon supplied him with lenses that would do the job, but Logan thought that they were too subtle. After a long disagreement, Logan attempted to create the lenses himself. When Logan and the crew realized that the film was now far too colorful, they tried everything they could to fix the film strips but to no avail. It was too late.

 
 
 

1958

DeCuir helps Walter Wagner pitch Cleopatra to the board at 20th Century Fox. This massive project would be a huge investment. Wagner told DeCuir, “Whenever I have to take a break, you start talking!” DeCuir wowed them with the conceptual artwork and that’s what sold the movie to 20th Century Fox.

 

1960

DeCuir is promoted to Production Designer at 20th Century Fox. 

1961

DeCuir Jr. was tasked with building an archway that Elizabeth Taylor would enter through on a sphinx. Over time, his measurements became inaccurate. He stumbled onto the set the day of filming expecting the worst, but was surprised when Taylor and the sphinx managed to just pass through. It was later revealed that DeCuir Jr.’s team realized his mistake and spent the night before removing almost twelve inches from the ground beneath the arch so that she would make it through.

 

1963

Cleopatra was the one of the biggest productions of the 20th century. With a final budget of $31 million, the production nearly bankrupted the studio. The custom-designed sets by DeCuir inspire awe and create an environment of grandeur for the magnificent story of Egypt’s last queen.

Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra was the one of the biggest productions of the 20th century. With a final budget of $31 million, the production nearly bankrupted the studio. The custom-designed sets by DeCuir inspire awe and create an environment of grandeur for the magnificent story of Egypt’s last queen.

 
 
 

1970

DeCuir transitions to freelance production design.

 

1984

Ghostbusters (1984)

[Spook Central] played such an important role that in my mind it became a character in the film...
— John DeCuir Jr.

With DeCuir Sr. as Production Designer and DeCuir Jr. as Art Director, this father and son project has inspired designers since its release in 1984. This film is largely admired for the presence and even character of the main building, 55 Central Park West, designed by John DeCuir Sr.

“[Spook Central] played such an important role that in my mind it became a character in the film,” says DeCuir Jr. 55 Central Park West was so important to the story that it was fabricated from many different parts to create a narrative environment that was just right. The lower street and main part of the building were filmed on location in New York, where the real building exists. However, they couldn’t cause a sinkhole and explosion on the streets of Manhattan so they recreated the street on a stage in Los Angeles. The temple and the upper floors of the building were created with matte paintings, miniatures, and full-size sets for shots throughout the movie. DeCuir Sr. constructed both Dana’s and Louis’ apartments as a single unit at The Burbank Studios in LA. You can learn more about the process of creating Spook Central in the Connectivity lesson in The Pillars of Design.