In 1902, the French inventor Georges Claude created an electrical discharged with a tube of neon gas. What he created was the world’s first neon light. He started his own neon light company, Claude Neon, and in 1923, he sold customized signs to companies who wanted to advertise outdoors. Simply put, that’s how the neon light industry was born.
As lore has it, after communist leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Poland was eager to light up the streets like Paris, which had its famed strip Champs-Élysées adorned with a huge Cinzano neon sign as early as 1913. From the 1950s to 1970s, the signs weren’t privately owned, they simply showed locations; one sign read “Dancing,” another said “Theater.”
The Museum of Neon Signs in Warsaw is a tribute to the long-lost era of pimped-out neon signage that filled the streets of Poland during the Cold War. With a collection of over 100 neon pieces and 500 letterforms, all of which have been restored, the museum began as a documentary photo project in 2005, where photographer Ilona Karwinska shot neon signage salvaged from Poland. Now, she and her partner David Hill show a wide variety of neon signs from the past to the present. It not only offers light into the postwar history of Poland, it offers a snapshot into graphic design at the time.
Though they’re rarely remembered today, many of the signs were designed by Poland’s greatest graphic designers like Jan Mucharski, Tadeusz Rogowski, and Jan Boguslawski. They used a bold and blocky style most of the time, or a minimalistic style at others. They used customized fonts and cursive script that bordered on the decorative. It lit up the brutalist architecture in postwar Warsaw. After the Cold War ended in 1991, the signs started disappearing and companies brought out their own branded signage.
The last of the signs have been extensively documented by Karwinska, who had an exhibition in 2013 called Polish Neon. The popularity of the photo series led her and Hill founding the museum. Set in the Soho Factory arts complex in the Praga district. It’s not only a must-see when visiting the Polish capital, but it taps into the country’s graphic design fame, which sheds light on the Polish School of Posters, a movement which blurred the lines between art and design.
Posters had personal style, illustration and brushstrokes, as well as inspiration from folk art, hand-lettered type and symbols. Some of the famed artists of the movement include Roman Cieślewicz Wojciech, Fangor Mieczyslaw, Gorowski and Tadeusz Jodlowski. Many call it an unknown art movement which was born out of the political revolution at the time, as many of the artists were forced to produce state propaganda before the end of the war.
Walking through the Neon Museum is a trip. It’s a large, spacious and industrial space with a permanent collection that has neon signs, drawings and graphic art artefacts. It’s dimly lit but with a good reason—the lights glow, casting a rainbow on the floor. Each sign tells a story about its long lost neighborhood, as well as the development of Warsaw.
The museum has also launched a preservation campaign to protest the last remaining signs on the streets of Warsaw—“Action Renovation” finds the neon signs around the city, researches and documents their history and restores them. Some of the most recent sings they’ve restored is the famed Soap & Paint (Mydła Farby) sign and the famous Jaś i Małgosia café sign. There are railway and restaurant neon signs, and they’ve worked with the famed Wedel chocolate company to bring back the fabulous and iconic ‘Boy on Zebra’ neon sign, which is known to many locals.
The museum keeps growing, as does their collection, which has come together thanks to generous locals who have helped develop this non-profit space with a growing community of researchers, creatives and urbanites. “When you visit our museum, you’ll be struck by the sheer inventiveness and unique characteristics of a hitherto unknown art form,” says Karwinska, “which was born from revolution, served as state propaganda, and flourished during Poland’s post-war period.”
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