Warsaw’s Cold War love affair with neon

BY Josh Ferry Woodard

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Warsaw’s Cold War love affair with neon

The Polish city is peppered with vivid works of art, which showcase a fascinating tale of a nation moving on and rediscovering its identity.

Neon, along with Warsaw’s largest landmark, the Palace of Culture and Science, evokes contrasting emotions among the city’s residents.

The Palace of Culture and Science, a 231-metre high behemoth in the heart of town, was built as a “gift” from Joseph Stalin in 1952.

To some of Warsaw’s older generations the landmark is an unyielding reminder of the gloom of Soviet rule. To some of the city’s younger residents the striking skyscraper—now home to hip bars, theatres, quirky museums, concerts and a multiplex cinema—truly is a palace of culture.

The Palace of Culture and Science

Stalin’s death in 1953 was followed by a new era of creative expression in Poland, perhaps best embodied by the  “neonisation” of Warsaw. In a bid to compete with Western urban centres such as London, Paris and Hamburg, the communist government commissioned Poland’s finest artists and graphic designers to produce numerous neon signs throughout the capital.

These neon masterpieces brought a kind of nocturnal magic to streets that had largely been plunged into darkness since the destruction of the Second World War.

Sadly, many of Warsaw’s iconic neons have been neglected; taken down or destroyed, since the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Like the imposing Palace of Culture and Science, the neons are seen by some as an unwanted reminder of communist oppression.

But like any good love story, there is a twist in the tale…


The Neon Museum


London-based photographer Ilona Karwinska started documenting Warsaw’s Cold War neons in 2005.

“I saw them as fascinating and photogenic; decaying objects that in some way reflected the transience of human life and what we leave behind.” 

Ilona quickly became aware that the neons were under threat and endeavoured to not only document the iconic signs, but also to preserve them.

A passion sparked, Ilona and partner David Hill decided to open a museum dedicated to the dazzling neons.

Situated in the edgy district of Praga, where crumbling tenement blocks that once marked the domain of Warsaw’s criminal underworld now host some of the city’s most exciting bars, restaurants and art galleries, the Neon Museum is an inspiring and informative relic to Warsaw’s Cold War love affair with the noble gas.

Some of the city’s most iconic neons—peach and white mermaids, bright yellow cinema signs, pink and electric blue glasses of milk—are present within the renovated redbrick warehouse. There’s also a section explaining the historical context of the art form.


Socialist advertising


In order to eradicate the shadow of Stalin, the Soviets sought to illuminate the streets of Warsaw in the 1950s without disrupting its identity as a communist capital city.

Official communist literature of the time described the advertising hoardings of the West as the “shrill screams of a hyena”, so it was important to find a medium that conformed to the ideals of the state.

To many, neon was the answer. Somewhat paradoxically described as “socialist advertising”, neon was designed to disseminate important information with politically correct values of “dependability and total trust”.

In practice, however, the appealing neon signs, which added colour, light and life to drab neighbourhoods, functioned very much like traditional advertising in the West.

Animated lettering, sparkling icons and dancing symbols attracted people to everything from cocktail bars and jazz clubs to florists and hairdressers.

Warsaw’s love affair with neon was, at this point, so intoxicating that state censors were happy to overlook the obvious similarities with Western advertising practices and the electric art form flourished throughout the city.

Neon signs were seen as an enchanting part of the community, particularly during the night time. A custom cursive neon sign can add a lot of allure to the surroundings. That's why many companies  included these signs within their businesses.

The fall of the Eastern Bloc


Electricity shortages, rising prices, general strikes, economic crises and martial law plagued Poland during the 1980s. The Soviet Union was in decline and satellite states such as Poland were moving away from communism.

In 1989 the Eastern Bloc collapsed and Poland entered a period of liberalisation. Warsaw opened its doors to the West and its myriad possibilities. Along with well-stocked supermarkets, privately owned shops and Western restaurant chains came capitalist advertising.

Nowadays, the capital’s buildings are covered in recognisable logos and branded billboards like any other major European city. At night the city twinkles with the lights of global hotel chains, towering investment banks and Coca Cola hoardings. It could appear that Warsaw has fallen out of love with its Cold War neons.

To some old enough to remember, the decaying tubes of light are relics from a time of strife and crushing oppression. But the success of Ilona Karwinska’s work preserving and documenting the retro neons shows the sparkling form retains romantic sentiments among many of Warsaw’s residents.


Retro Warsaw


Neon signs are particularly popular among the youth, to whom they have no negative connotations.

Another relic from the Soviet era that has enjoyed a retro renaissance in recent years, especially with students and younger generations, is the milk bar.

Milk bars are affordable, no-frills canteen restaurants serving home cooked Polish cuisine. They were hugely popular during the Cold War era, when most more stylish restaurants were derided as “capitalist” and closed down by state authorities.

Busy clusters of trendy coffee shops, craft beer bars and organic restaurants all over the city suggest residents have embraced the shift from East to West.

However, for reasons of nostalgia or authenticity, many prefer to dine at milk bars, where delicious Polish specialties such as pierogi dumplings, potato pancakes and stuffed cabbage are served.

Warsaw’s cityscape underwent a tremendous transition following the fall of communism. But, like it or loathe it, one landmark that towers above all others is the Palace of Culture and Science.

Look a little harder—in the milk bars, on certain illuminated street corners and in the Neon Museum—and you can still find signs of enduring affection towards the city’s Cold War relics.


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