Juan Larrinaga

The Creative Genius of the 1935 Exposition

Juan Larrinaga is here to wave his magic wand and bring villages and scenes of distant lands and romantic places to life in San Diego.

 -- Evening Tribune, September 1934.

Larrinaga, an internationally known artist and designer, is a pioneer and leader of an art born of the modern stage, the motion picture, and the exposition….mammoth undertakings...on the grand scale.

 -- Evening Tribune

Juan Larrinaga rendering of Normandy town in proposed Villages of Nations at 1935 expo. --

I anticipate great pleasure in this work here. It is such an ideal spot, such a setting of natural beauty. And right in the center of the city. You don’t find such a setting to work with in other places, you know.

-- Juan Larrinaga, on his work in Balboa Park

Juan Larrinaga rendering of Palisades area at 1935 expo. -- Central Library Special Collec

Juan was involved with it all. Music, lighting, landscape and ornamentation. He would accomplish a task with the speed and artistry of a man inspired. The work seemed to flow from his brushes.

-- Richard Requa

(Put in Story) Detail of March of Transportation Mural_ Aviation of the Future. The Balboa

by Bob Wohl, C100 Board Member

     Richard Requa, the legendary architectural director of the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, said that Juan Larrinaga was “a lovable personality, a constant source of inspiration to me and to all…of invaluable assistance in my work...Juan Larrinaga could do everything in art and decoration. He was a natural talent developed in the Hollywood motion picture studios to a great versatility to technical accuracy.”

     Who was this ingenious and protean artist whose name is known by so few people? He was designated the “chief art and technical director” for the entire 1935 expo.  

Juan Larrinaga. Thomas Emery collection,  San Diego Air & Space Museum.jpg.jpeg

From Baja California to Show Biz

      Larrinaga was born in 1885 in Cananea, Baja California, Mexico, of Basque parenthood, and arrived in the U.S. around 1900. For 10 years he traveled and painted sets and scenery and curtains for touring opera companies and theaters throughout Latin America and worked on Los Angeles’ 150th birthday celebration. 

     In 1910, he joined Universal Studios and trained his younger brother Mario in the art of painting huge scenic backdrops and curtains for theater and opera productions. Mario joined Universal in 1916 and became a technical artist. They worked together on everything from huge cycloramas to detailed miniatures.

     The competition for the theatre ornamentation and painting of the sets and curtains of the Shrine Auditorium was announced in the mid 1920s. The Larrinagas won the lucrative creative contract for America’s largest auditorium. 

     The Los Angeles Times headlined their success in February 1926 as “Local Artists Achieve Triumph In Shrine Decorations."

Juan Larrinaga rendering of Dutch Village in proposed Village of Nations at 1935 expo. --

Cecil B. DeMille and King Kong

     The Larrinaga brothers worked out of the Los Angeles Scenic Studio, where Juan was the art director from 1925 to 1935, and created hundreds of sketches, storyboards, miniatures and watercolors for these world popular films. 

     Their movie projects included 1920s silent film epics like Cecil B. DeMille's "The King of Kings" and, in 1932-33, the blockbusters "King Kong" and "Son of Kong." Mario became the chief of the art effects department at Warner Bros., and later retired to Taos, N.M., to become a full time accomplished artist and painter.

(Put in Story) Spanish Village 1935 Expo. The Balboa Park Committee of 100 Archive Collect

Photo: Spanish Village at the 1935 Expo.

     When you wander around the Palisades section of Balboa Park, most of the exterior building design work was Juan’s personal creation. Besides the exquisite designs he created for the California State Building (now the San Diego Automotive Museum), he also invented the method of construction for the tiles and art, literally overnight. Richard Requa’s delightfully enthusiastic book, Inside Lights on the Building of San Diego’s Exposition: 1935, on his team’s fervid construction of the 1935 expo, describes Larrinaga’s ingenious and timely process.

     Larrinaga's Maya style for the Federal Building — now home to the newly opened Comic-Con Museum — carries all his motifs. He also designed the painted glass triangle above the door showing a Maya priest or warrior, an art element the Balboa Park Committee of 100 would like to bring back in some form.

     In 1936 he conceived and designed a remarkable art piece —  the immense "March of Transportation" mural, 468 feet long and 18 feet high, inside the sweeping rotunda of the Ford Building, today's San Diego Air & Space Museum. It was said to be the largest indoor mural ever painted. With two designers helping him to block it out and a team of painters filling in his illustrations, they completed this work in record time for the 1936 expo’s second-year opening ceremony. It was restored in 1979.

     Juan Larrinaga died in Los Angeles in 1947 and was honored with the Balboa Park Committee of 100's Bertram Goodhue Award in 2018. 

     The 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition was Juan Larrinaga’s masterwork.