You Light Up My Life! Neon Signs in Warsaw

27 Jul 2022
Stop for a moment and think about your perceptions of Poland during the communist years - the so called “PRL” era. Chances are your mind will conjure up visions of bleak and colourless concrete heavy cityscapes with miserable old grannies and drunks trudging through the mud and snow pulling trolleys laden with potatoes and toilet paper behind them. That vision may be partly true, however, hold your horses now, the reality was actually brighter and more exciting than our history teachers and the western media led us to believe.

After the death of Stalin in 1953 Poland's authorities were well aware of the opportunity to break free from the shackles of the Socialist Realist urban vision and a less restrictive and artistically creative period for architects, designers and city planners ensued.

One of the more interesting state endorsed projects of the time was to encourage the installation of neon signage. Although the popularity of neons in Poland continued into the 1970's the high point lasted from the late 1950's to the mid 1960's, with the programme employing 1000's of people in the designing, production, installation and maintenance of these "liquid fire" signs. Almost every application from state-run companies, cinemas, restaurants, cafes and theatres was quickly rubber-stamped, signed and given the go-ahead. Warsaw saw the installation of the most neons in the country but was closely followed by Katowice, as the state wished to emphasise the economic success of its industrial heartland.

First shown at the Paris Motor Show in 1910, neon lighting rapidly became the medium for advertising. Soon after, cities like Paris, Berlin and New York were ablaze with colour by night, the signs were seen as symbols of modernity, progress, energy and the cultural high-life. Even today, it would be hard to imagine a sight which says more about financial success and a happy-go-lucky approach to leisure time than a photo of Las Vegas at night.

One important cultural difference is the fact that in Poland the signs were, more often than not, designed by some of the country's top artists and graphic designers who were drafted in to add contemporary and creative flair to the projects.

In Warsaw, the neons certainly brightened up the city, but in reality they also served as a convenient veneer, covering over the fact that behind the modernist façades and bright lights, the shelves of shops were regularly empty or that the glamorously advertised restaurants and cafes could rarely sell you a beer or a bite to eat.

As the country drifted into the economic despair of the 1970's the last thing on people's minds was fancy energy wasting advertising, proclaiming non-existent lifestyles and goods. The lights started going out and due to the lack of maintenance and general apathy the neons were quickly forgotten about. The collapse of communism and the hatred of anything to do with that era saw many important architectural buildings torn down and neons tossed into the dustbin of history, or simply left to fall into further states of disrepair and neglect.

Today's interest in all things retro and the burgeoning contemporary arts scene in Warsaw means that the importance and preservation of the city's neons has become a matter of urgency and necessity. A new generation of Varsovians see these iconic works as part of a cultural legacy and a unique part of the city's heritage, rather than simply a by-product of a much despised totalitarian system.

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.

Head back towards the city centre to check out the lovely neon roses and letterforms outside the legendary health and beauty centre IZIS (a business establish way back in 1927) at ul. Marszałkowska 55/73 (F-4).

Warsaw's stunning, in our opinion at least, early 1970's Central railway station (Dworzec Centralny) may have undergone an upgrade, but in keeping with the design the façade has kept its chunky neon name. The new pavilions in the main hall are also adorned with retro style neon signs. Cross the road to Plac Defilad (B-4) and check out the 1963 Warszawa Śródmieście (Warsaw City-centre) railway station with its functional, austere and old-school socialist rooftop neon. You'll find more neons by taking a walk round the Palace of Culture. Ironically, the Technical Museum, which is housed in the Palace, has only three of its neon letters lighting up!

One of the crowning glories of Warsaw neons must be the globe which sits atop the Orbis Hotel at the corner of ul. Bracka and Al. Jerozolimskie (C-4). The "globus Orbis" may look spectacular but sadly, the current version is in fact a modern replica. The original, installed in 1951 was one of the oldest neons in the city. Due to corrosion and neglect it was deemed to be unrestorable and was replaced with the new model in 2011.

From the "Globe" take a short stroll down to the palm tree at the crossing of Al. Jerozolimskie and Nowy Świat, look to the right, in the direction of Plac Trzech Krzyży, and you'll see the dynamic "Dancing" sign standing proud on the rooftop of Nowy Świat 3/5 (C-4) . This neon was installed in 1962 to advertise Melodia, one of Warsaw's most popular post-war dancehalls.

One of the more bizarre neons to be found in the city centre can be seen on top of the Emil Wedel townhouse at ul. Szpitalna 8 (B-3). The building dates back to 1893 and was built in front of the famous chocolate manufacturer's original factory. Stop off for a hot chocolate in the glamorous old-world Pijalnia Czekolady Wedel on the ground floor of the building, before peering skywards to see a large neon featuring a rather Brothers Grimm looking young lad riding a zebra and carrying huge bars of chocolate on his back! The whole weird scene is undersigned with the company's trademark - E. Wedel's signature.

New and fashionable businesses in the city now regularly use retro Polish style neon signs for their logos. For a good comparison visit Café Relax, stroll 50 metres along the street, look up, and you'll see the original Relax Cinema (closed in 2006) neon sign at ul. Złota 8 (B-3). The local snack chain Zapiexy Luxusowe (ul. Widok 19, B-4) also uses a neon logo for its shop fronts which is heavily influenced by Polish designs from the 1960's.


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