You Light Up My Life!

26 Sep 2017

Nobody deserves more credit for the resurgence of interest in Polish neon than the photographer Ilona Karwińska and designer David S Hill. Karwińska has been documenting the neons of Warsaw, and throughout Poland, since 2005 and her coffee table tome - Polish Cold War Neon - is a lavish photographic record of the most iconic neons in the country. An exhibition of her photographs has travelled extensively throughout Europe and was instrumental in raising the profile of Polish neon and letterforms to new audiences.

Not content with simply recording the objects, in 2012 the pair opened the Neon Museum in the fashionable Soho Factory (ul. Mińska 25, building 55, Praga Południe), a complex of design and architects offices, shops, restaurants and publishers in the Praga district of Warsaw. The museum is home to over 50 neons and around 500 letterforms as well as a huge archive of documentation, blueprints, photographs and original plans relating to the history of these signs. Other buildings around the complex play host to some of the neons from the collection, so be sure to check out the wall spaces and rooftops while wandering around. These outdoor exhibits come to life during the hours of darkness, but do keep in mind that the museum itself will be closed at night. Another important aspect of the museums work is to renovate and maintain neons which are still 'in-situ' around the city. Their latest on-site project has been the renovation of the "Syrenka" (the Warsaw mermaid symbol) perched upon an open book and a giant pencil. The building previously served as a public library and the neon can be seen at ul. Grójecka 81/87 (D-5).

Interestingly, much of the renovation and restoration work carried out for the museum is undertaken by Reklama, a local company whose history dates back to the 1950's and were the original producers of many of the neons which are now being restored by them. Some of the highly skilled employees still recall working on the originals during the late 1960's and early 1970's!

Being a labour of love for Karwińska and Hill, the Neon Museum is entirely privately funded by money raised from organising events, sponsorship from private companies (aptly, the energy company RWE is one of the major supporters of the project) and the hard work of a passionate team of volunteers. There is no entrance fee for visiting the museum, but visitors can leave a donation. The gift shop also features a unique and brilliant selection of collection inspired designer products.

In order to see Socialist period neons in their original settings in Warsaw a good starting point is the flagship, early 1950's, Socialist Realist Plac Konstytucji (Constitution Square, F-4). Up until the early 1980's this large square was aglow with vast neon signs. Today, amongst the giant billboards and vulgar fluorescent lights advertising the likes of Samsung and Orange, a gem of PRL era neon is still in place - the "Siatkarka" (the volleyball player) is situated on the corner of the square and ul. Piękna (F-4) this leaping female form blasts a volleyball into the air and then in a sequence of neon lights the ball drops down the elevation of the building. Designed by the famous artist and printmaker Jan Mucharski in 1961 to advertise a sports shop of the time, the neon was restored to its former glory in 2005 thanks to the initiative of artist Paulina Orłowska and the support of the Foksal Foundation Gallery.


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