Warsaw has a unique museum that exhibits neon signs from the Cold War era. Graphic designer David Hill and his photographer wife, Ilona Karwinska, are the founders of Neon Muzeum Warsaw. David and Ilona became accidental curators, and what started as a stroll through the city of Warsaw ultimately resulted in a collection of more than 300 neon signs. POM Magazine’s Giulia Weijerman spoke with David Hill to find out what is so special about Polish neon lights from this particular time period. During the interview, Giulia fell from one surprise into the next.
by Giulia Weijerman
David, why are you so interested in Polish neon lights?
When I met my then future wife Ilona in London in 2005, she invited me to visit Warsaw. Ilona is originally from Poland, but she moved to the UK as a teenager and spent most of her adult life there. She then knew as much of Poland and its design history as I did. When we walked through Warsaw’s streets and boulevards, I immediately noticed these fantastic, but rather dilapidated neon signs on the buildings. I am a professional graphic designer and typographer. It struck me that these neon signs seemed so fresh and original, with letterforms I had never seen before. I found them exciting and incredible and at the time nobody seemed to have any interest in them at all. Ilona is a portrait photographer and she had just finished a major anthropological project in Syria and the Lebanon, and wondered what she was going to do next. So rather cheekily, I suggested: ‘why don’t you go from photographing people to photographing neons?’ This ultimately led us from photographic documentation, to preservation and restoration of these historical neon signs. We now have more than 300 neons, the first and largest such collection in Europe.
So you were the first ones to recognise that these actually are important pieces of art?
We would love to say that we immediately recognised the inherent cultural value of these neons. But it was initially just a graphic design project, during which we discovered a lot of unusual typography and designs which eventually led to the publication of a book and an exhibition. That is what opened flood gates for us. People began contacting us, asking us: ‘would you like to have these signs?’ We also noticed that many of the signs were being taken down by workers and thrown into skips or lorries. We were horrified that these neon signs, that had been on the buildings since the 1950s, were being taken down and destroyed so thoughtlessly. We always asked the workers if we could have them. Of course, they thought we were quite crazy, but they gave them to us anyway. So initially, the neon signs were either donations or we had saved them from destruction. It was then we started to emotionally invest in the project instead of considering it simply a transient documentation project.
What makes the neon signs in your collection so special?
What’s interesting is that they were created within strict rules and regulations established by state authorities. Graphic designers had to work within these parameters, there was no ‘carte blanche’. Despite this, the signs were so avant-garde and many were absolutely wild. It was a carefully controlled medium, which is why it is incredible that these designers created such beautiful, expressive neon signs. Each neon sign was designed for one purpose; so for one building, one product, one service or one factory. The signs were completely original letterforms and symbols that were created once, never to be used again. Until later, when the original designers had retired and the technicians were charged with making the remaining neon signs. That is when they started using the Swiss fonts. They started using, Grotesk Neue or Helvetica fonts everywhere. All these newer letter forms appeared in the late 80s, which is when the originality of the early style started to fade. The later signs don’t have the same visual or emotional impact, in my opinion.
How did you come to start a museum?
My upbringing was very much geared around collecting and documenting. It prepared me for the museum, I think. It just seemed like a natural process, collecting neon artefacts and showing them to the public in a museum. We found a space in the building that we now occupied for almost 12 years. Ilona originally said to me: ‘let’s open a pop-up exhibition for a few weeks and see what happens.’ Luckily, we were participating in the European Museum Nights Event called The Long Night Of The Museums, back in May 2012. We put an advert out and 6,000 people came to visit the museum in a single night! We were taken aback by the positive public response. We had expected negative commentary from people, since the neon signs were symbols of the communist occupation. Yet they were designed by the best graphic artists, but the initiators of the neonisation campaign were the communist authorities.
Does the museum tell us something about the history of the signs itself? Or is it mainly focused on the aesthetic?
We are big on history! We have an archive of thousands of original drawings, project packs and blueprints. In the museum we display a lot of information on text panels alongside the neon signs; information about the history, the designer and the original location of the building the neon once adorned. In the 1950s the public was restless in Eastern Europe. They wanted their freedom back and remembered life in the interwar period. The Soviets and communists were very concerned they were losing control. Some genius must have stood up during a conference in Moscow and suggested- let’s neonise, to make the cities look like they did in the interwar period. Early on we were concerned that the public would perceive our exhibition as a big statement about communism, which it certainly isn’t. Over the years, we’ve managed to carefully strip away the political connotations. We wanted people to focus on the design and aesthetic. It is amazing that a society that was so restrictive and controlled, created such beautiful images in neon.
Do you only collect signs from the Cold War era?
We are specifically interested in the designs from the time period running from 1955-’56 to the end of the regime in 1989. It was initiated by the communist authorities, it was a state project and it was run by an internal trade body. These are not commercial neon lights and they were not advertisements as such. They were socialist messages. They were symbols to ‘inform, educate and amuse’. The state refused to allow competition and in Poland there was just a single company handling all the neon sign production. We discovered that other countries in the Eastern Bloc behind the iron curtain, were also engaged in their own neonisation propaganda campaigns. So there was a vernacular style in Poland, Hungary had a style, and the former Czechoslovakia had its own style of neons.
What do you think the museum will look like in 5 or 10 years?
Well, much bigger! We are currently exhibiting and have fully restored, about 125 neon signs. But in our storage we have hundreds of neon signs just waiting to shine. Some of them are quite large in size. We have for example, both the largest and the oldest neon sign from the former Eastern Bloc. It was made during Stalin’s life who, famously hated Western neon advertising. Why on earth the authorities would build a neon globe of 5 meters in diameter and place it in the heart of Warsaw in 1950, is beyond us. We have the original in our collection and we would love to present it as the centre piece of our exhibition, since it represents the genesis of the neonisation campaign. We currently have about 500-600 m2 of space but we would like to double that. Next year, we hope to move the museum to a new building, located closer to the centre of Warsaw. People visiting us now, are determined to come and see us. We don’t have many accidental walk-ins. Visitors have ventured all the way across the city to find us. The Neon Muzeum is on the eastern side of Warsaw, across the Vistula river, and a fairly long journey across the river to find us. Despite attracting more than 100,000 people per year, by moving to the centre of Warsaw we hope to attract even more visitors.
Do you have a favourite neon sign?
The neon signs are like children to us, we love them equally. But secretly I do have two favourites. One is a large blue circle with an electric red word ‘Mydlła’, meaning Soaps, and to the lower right the word ‘Farby’, which means paints. This is my favourite because people are always so surprised that it was made for such a mundane set of products, soap and paint. When they see this neon, they immediately think it’s a sign for a jazz café or a cocktail bar, it just looks so spectacular. My other favourite neon displays the word ‘Syrena’ in dazzling bright blue. I simply love it because the typography is just stunning. It was found in Elbląg on the Baltic coast, in an abandoned movie theatre that was due to be demolished. The workmen of the demolition company went into the building to check if there was anyone left. All they found were pieces of a neon sign that once adorned the building. The real estate developer offered not only to donate it to us but also to completely renovate it. It was such an unusual and generous act that we had a special lighting up ceremony in the museum, for this neon.
Are there new exhibitions planned for the near future?
We recently won a grant to create a pioneering new exhibition highlighting the work of the many women neon designers of Warsaw – we have called it, Women Designers of Light. Despite the fact that the neon sign companies employed thousands of women tube benders at the time in the late 50s and early 60s, the neon designers tended to be men. Later on however, many talented women began designing neons. On November 21 we opened this fascinating and original exhibition. Going forward, it will remain part of the Neon Muzeum’s permanent exhibition.