Vagabond Voyeur

Warsaw Neon Muzeum


Warsaw's Neon Muzeum houses more than 50 vintage signs from Cold War era Poland. Apart from their electrifying beauty, the signs embody the deeply complex dynamics of a city and culture ravaged by WWII then suffocated by socialism. Parallel to elements of Warsaw's own post-war narrative, the Neon Muzeum is fighting not just for the survival of these iconic vintage relics but to see them shine and let others dance in their light.  

Location: Warsaw, Poland



Warsaw caught me off guard—and by that I mean I was completely and irrevocably smitten within hours of arriving. There’s a certain lightness and brightness in the air here that washed over me like warm sun chased by a cool breeze. The streets are buzzing, the women dressed to impress, and a palpable yet relaxed attention to detail radiates from shops and cafes. Good vibes aside, the city serves up a diversity of distinct districts, each with its own flavor and flow, which are stitched together by a common ubiquity of culinary novelty, killer coffee culture, nightlife and art for the bon vivant.

It didn’t take long, though, to unearth the incomprehensible tragedy in Warsaw’s not-so-distant past. For centuries it was one of Europe’s architectural pearls, among the most beautiful and culturally relevant cities the world over. But as WWII burned on, so too did Warsaw. Following the heroic but inevitably doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Hitler’s retribution was swift and brutal; his soldiers set about their orders to wipe the city from the map and raze it to the ground with zealous fury. Next to nothing remained—of its walls or its people. Monuments and government buildings were blown up; the library and museum collections were taken to Germany or burned; and the overwhelming majority of civilians were killed, tortured, or at best, expelled. Of the 1.3 million people that inhabited Warsaw in 1939, only 1,000 remained in the city in beginning of 1945. Making matters worse, the Soviet Army then moved in to occupy Poland, marking the beginning of a bleak and suffocating regime that would endure for the four-plus decades to follow. 

And yet, despite its tragic past—or perhaps in spite of it—Warsaw today exudes infectious energy and a visceral plume of optimism that hangs in the air and colors the streets. Its people are survivors in the truest, deepest sense. They are a living, breathing manifestation of what it means to recover from a shattered heart, to pick up the pieces and rebuild—physically, emotionally and culturally. It’s as inspiring as it is incredible, and central to the mystique that has me so head-over-heels for Warsaw.

Among my favorite districts is Praga, easily dubbed the Brooklyn of Warsaw. It is an area along the east bank of the Vistula River dotted with remnants of original pre-war architecture and industrial warehouses. Praga has a sort of frayed, bohemian charm that in recent years has attracted young creative types to open galleries in abandoned factories and reclaim old tenement buildings as live-work spaces and boutiques. Soho Factory is one such example of this urban renewal, a wide expanse of quirky shops, edgy arts venues, community facilities and well-manicured green space, which is also home to the Neon Muzeum.

Warsaw’s Neon Muzeum is dedicated to preserving and documenting Poland’s largest and singular collection of Cold War era neon signs. Just a few years into its tenure, the project was conceived by photographer Ilona Karwinska and her partner, graphic designer David Hill, who were captivated by the signs—aesthetically and symbolically—and resolute to saving them from destruction. At present the collection includes more than 50 pieces and is steadily growing. Apart from their intoxicating glow and startling grandeur, these vintage relics are fascinating for the multi-dimensional role they played throughout Poland’s socialist era. In contrast to the utility of neon signage in the West, which was largely understood as a modern approach to advertising, in the People’s Republic of Poland, where there was no such thing as a free market, neon provided a jolt of electrifying color amidst an otherwise gray backdrop and served as a beacon of pride and prestige. Known as the so-called “neonization” campaign by the government, it was in effect a cultural bridge between socialism and capitalism, an architectural and aesthetic gateway to the future on both sides of the Cold War divide.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Neon Muzeum co-founder and curator Ilona Karwinska, borrowed from a piece by Alex Jackson that appeared in Port Magazine last year, which expound on the makings of the museum and the prodigious significance of the treasures inside it. 

Neon signs had many important uses both culturally and socially. They became symbols, economically, of success, advertising and satisfying the growing needs of consumers for a multitude of modern products. They also served as socially aspirational symbols in ‘culturally relaxed’ post-Stalinist Poland, where citizens could expect a lively nightlife in the plethora of cafes, restaurants, dancing clubs, theatres and cocktail bars. Eventually, these signs became ‘signposts’, recognisable landmarks, from which to navigate the growing urban landscape—and in turn were embraced by the public as an important part of Poland’s cultural fabric.
Many of these artists—Witold Janowksi, Janusz Rapnicki and Jan Mucharski—came from the famous Polish School of Poster Design. With deeper research of recently uncovered archives, we are now connecting many more well-known designers and architects with the neonisation program.
BERLIN really started the whole collecting process. So many signs were being removed and destroyed it was hard to intervene and save every one. Eventually we had enough to consider a permanent collection…but the cost is enormous. Fortunately we’ve had a number of generous sponsors and donations over the years that have allowed us to renovate a large number of neons in our collection. We use specialists to repair the old neons, one such company being Reklama and was the company that originally made the signs back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
There have been some quite serendipitous moments over the years, but I think my favourite was when we gave the BERLIN neon back to Reklama to renovate and discovered they’d made the sign originally; the same—though now much older—men involved in its creation in 1974 were amazed to see it back, and could work on its restoration.

If you find yourself in Warsaw, do not miss the chance to visit this sacred collection of blazing emblems and lose yourself in their light.  

Warsaw Neon Muzeum location & contact info:

Budynek 55,
Soho Factory, Mińska 25
03-808 Warszawa

Telephone: +48 516 608 881