Amongst the first names to be confirmed for TYPO Berlin 2014 “Roots” were Ilona Karwinska and David S. Hill. They are the directors and founders of the Polish Neon Muzeum in Warsaw, which is dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Poland’s cold war era neon signs. Contrary to our preconceived notions about former East Bloc countries, not everything in Poland was grey and drab under totalitarian communist rule, with colourful neon signs peppering the urban landscape. The Neon Muzeum collects and exhibits these witnesses of days gone by.
Interest in the not-so-distant history of the Cold War has grown dramatically in recent years. In particular, the architecture, design and social landmarks of that extraordinary era have already begun to surpass even the political and historical relevance of the time. The new Cold War Culture covers everything from posters to architecture, fashion to the space race – but one aspect above all had until recently been regrettably overlooked – the remarkable history of Neon Signs and Urban Typography of this period. No other country tells the story of Cold War Neon more illuminatingly than Poland.
Karwinska has extensively researched the history of neon, photographing, documenting and recording original schematics & blueprints as well as uncovering never-before-seen archival photography of many Cold War Era Polish city streets – alight with dazzling socialist messages and whimsical neon designs.
Many of the neon signs were made during the boom of the 1960s and 1970s and were created by the best architects and graphic designers. The signs became highly visible landmarks with a local aesthetic, and in turn were embraced by the public as an important part of Poland’s cultural fabric. They are now disappearing rapidly, hence the urgent need to preserve and protect what remains for future generations. The campaign to save these signs began in 2005 with Ilona Karwinska’s photographic documentation project entitled Polish Cold War Neon, which was published as a hardcover book in 2011. The subject of Polish Cold War Neon was brought to greater public and media consciousness by numerous exhibitions and publications. The exhibitions traveled from London, Luxembourg, Amsterdam to Warsaw, and the efforts of Kawinski and Hill have resulted in a “neon revolution”.
After years spent in a temporary storage space, the Neon Muzeum found a permanent home in the Soho Factory, Warsaw. The museum opened its doors for the first time during the European Museum Nights on May 19, 2012, attracting over 10,000 visitors in one single night. As it is a private initiative and currently does not receive public funds, it relies on donations to finance its mission to preserve and save these unique neon letter forms.