Warsaw’s amazing neon wonderland

From the 1950s to the late 1970s, in the wake of a state-funded programme, there were neon signs on just about every street in Warsaw. Ten years ago, a couple from London were intrigued by a few lonely signs – and began uncovering a remarkable story

(First published in Wizz magazine, October 2015. Photography by Tim White)

“It truly was a wonderland. Streets sparkled. There were huge bunches of flowers six metres high, and larger-than-­life elephants. It was absurd in many ways – this explosion of decoration, of pure want.”

The above description of post-war Warsaw doesn’t exactly tally with many outsiders’ idea of life behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. It comes from David Hill, the co-founder of Warsaw’s Neon Muzeum, who along with partner Ilona Kanvinska has been instrumental in rescuing an art form that in a few decades had gone from every street corner to the brink of extinction.

In 2005, Hill and Karwinska visited Warsaw from London for the first time together. She was a British/Polish photogra­pher and he a typographer and graphic designer originally from Bermuda. ”At the time, Ilona was looking for a new photography project, and we were both struck by seeing these fascinating old neon signs around the city,” recalls Hill. “They were archaic, but to me somehow seemed so fresh – these fantastic, elegant typefaces and playful images that were like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

With Karwinska ready to start her new project on Warsaw neon, she headed down to Plac Konstytucji (Constitution Square) to shoot the sign she’d seen a few days before: a typographic sign for ‘Berlin’, formerly a Communist-era shop that sold textiles and goods from the DDR. But when she arrived, the sign had been taken down. “We called up the shop, and learned it was going to be destroyed,” she remembers. “We were horrified, and begged them not to destroy it – they agreed and eventually gave us the neon. That was the pivotal moment in which we went from being observers to activists.”

Even then, Hill and Karwinska hadn’t quite realised the full extent of neon’s historical and artistic significance in Poland. After Stalin’s death in 1953, during the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw”, the city’s bureaucrats wanted to brighten up a city that had been flattened by German bombs during World War II. By the late 1950s, “neonisation” had been declared, with the aim of illumi­nating cities across Poland, and turning Warsaw into the neon capital of the world.

With the state-run factory Reklama (which means advertising) churning out signs, great artists from the famous School of Polish Poster Design – the likes of Tadeusz Rogowski, Witold Janowski, Janusz Rapnicki and Jan Mucharski – were enlisted to design neons as part of the so-called Neon Group.

“Over time, through the neons, we discovered not just this culturally significant and completely new school of art, but the amazing story of the Golden Age of Neon, from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,” says Hill.

“Following World War II and Stalin’s regime, there had been no time for leisure or fun – it was just rebuilding. Immediately following Stalin’s death, people demanded social pleasures again; they wanted joy and dancing. The powers-that-be wanted to project economic and cultural success, even if it was just a veneer. Often, you’d have a huge sign for an empty shop. Neon became a form of propaganda, an ostentatious projection of power – ‘everything will glisten’, they were saying.

“There was almost no limit to what could be made, and its cost, and designers were given this unprece­dented creative freedom. It’s phenomenal to think of Soviet bureaucrats approving designs of cats in boots, elephants and giant balloons – but there was so much whimsy and wit in the design, and it was encouraged. It may have been the largest state-sponsored graphic design project in history.”

At its peak, the Warsaw-based Reklama had more than 300 employees, including
two psychologists who studied the effects of the neons on peoples’ lives. And they made thousands of signs, all with one-off designs. “The Warsaw neons were intended to ‘inform, teach amuse,'” says Hill. “As public service messages they said: ‘This is where you buy your news­papers, flowers, milk or see films.’ They also showed the West that Poland could do its own form of advertising without promoting logos or brands; it wasn’t meant to be like the [tasteless] neons of Soho or Las Vegas.”

In the late ’70s, though, Poland had simply run out of money, and couldn’t afford to maintain the neons, let alone make new ones. When martial law was introduced in 1981, the neons were switched off, and the authori­ties’ “jolly bus”, which had gone around the city at night repairing signs, was taken out of action.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, according to Hill, “there was a backlash against anything associated with the former regime, and neon signs fell into that category”. Ever since, neons have been disappearing at an alarming rate in Warsaw and across Poland.
“Even 10 years ago, there were still neons on most streets,” says Hill. “But they were being destroyed almost daily. In Warsaw, the number has gone from thousands to only a few dozen.”

But back in 2006, after Karwinska had exhibited her collection of neon photographs in London, she was invited to exhibit at Warsaw’s iconic Palace of Culture and Science, along with the ‘Berlin’ neon, which they had completely renovated.

“With that exhibition, people, and especially Varsovians, rediscovered their memories of the signs, and it instantly woke them up to what had been lost,” recalls Hill. “Suddenly, the floodgates opened and we started to get phone calls almost every day from people with old neons who wanted to donate them to us. We began storing them in a disused car repair garage, which we rather confidently declared to be a museum, but we began to run out of space very quickly.”

In 2012, after Karwinska had travelled across Poland taking photographs for her definitive book, Polish Cold War Neon, the pair moved into Soho Factory, a new venture in Praga – the up-and-coming industrial area on the other side of the river to the city’s Old Town. They were offered a beautiful late-18oos factory building in which to store what is now a collection of hundreds of signs. The museum today is a lovingly presented homage to neon, and well worth a visit. As Hill puts it: “There are so many layers to these objects – they’re not only tactile and beautiful, but each has so much to say about history.”

Hill and Karwinska are extremely hands-on, living at the Soho Factory when they’re here (they split their time between Warsaw and London, where they still run a design agency), and hiring a veteran Reklama worker to fix the signs. They also work to protect and maintain neons around the city in situ.

But while the history of neon still burns bright in a chic corner of Praga, there aren’t exactly an overwhelm­ing number of neons around Warsaw. There are still a few around Plac Konstytucji, which was the heart of the original neonisation project: a flashing neon disc for a musical instrument store; a sign for a health and beauty shop; and, if you look closely at the top of one Stalin-era building on ul. Piekna (Pretty Street), an unlit sign of a female volleyball player whose animated ball used to dance up and down the side of the building. This is Siatkarka (volleyball player), a classic piece from key neon designer Jan Mucharski, first designed to repre­sent a sports shop in 1961, later restored by Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Karwinska calls it one of “the most cherished and important pieces of neon in the city”.

Elsewhere, you can get a limited sense of how Cold War neon once was: the shimmering neon globe at the Orb is hotel, a replica of the old spinning globe that depicted a travel agency of the same name (the original was saved by the Neon Muzeum); the simple sign on the Jetsons-like Warszawa Powisle, once a train station and now a hip, studenty cafe-bar; or the elegantly cursive neon handwriting of the busy Jas i Malgosia (Hansel and Gretel) bar to the west of the Old Town (klubjasimalgosia.pl); the original is in the Neon Muzeum collection.

Public aesthetic policy in Warsaw has certainly moved away from neon, with the most striking piece of new city deco­ration over the last two decades a giant palm tree in the middle of the main Aleje Jerozolimskie thoroughfare, made from steel, bark and polyethyl­ene. Nowadays, Hill says that the Reklama – once one of the world’s great neon factories – is “just a couple of the original guys, and they can be hard to track down”.

But he says that the shoots of a small revival are there. “After years of our efforts – such as creating and installing a giant new neon ‘Milo Ci’t Widziec’ (Nice to See You) on Gdansk Bridge, I feel we have turned a corner now, and there are a growing num­ber of young Polish designers starting to look at this wonderful luminous medium again,” he says. “People are wanting neons for their businesses, and starting to value what it represents.” There’s a new version of ‘The Volleyball Player’ close to the Old Town, and new takes on other old classics pop­ping up, like a remake of a neon cow on Aleje Jerozolimskie, representing one of the city’s many iconic Milk Bars.

It’s inconceivable that Warsaw will ever again be the neon wonderland it once was. But Ilona Karwinska and David Hill have done more than salvage a few signs – they’ve rescued an amazing story that was in danger of never being told. Warsaw’s neon legacy may have been flickering, but today it shines again.

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