A History of Warsaw's Neons
Since Warsaw's first years of independence and capitalism, when it was a multicultural city, throughout the destruction of war and the dark, ruinous communist years, all the way until modernism, neons have been and still are one of the Polish capital's unmistakeable trademarks.
The history of neon lamps goes back to 1675. This was the year in which French astronomer Jean Picard shook the world with the first Torricelli barometer. Upon his observance of the faint glowing of the barometer, he discovered mercurial phosphorescence. Thanks to tests and inventions, like the voltaic pile, the Geissler tube and the Ruhmkorff coil, emission of a blue or purple light from a glass tube became possible during the second half of the 19th century. The simultaneous discovery of noble gases like argon, helium, neon and xenon, as well as the spread of electrical energy, made possible the construction of neon lamps which in their book Neons. A Fleeting Ornament of Warsaw at Night, Jarosław Zieliński and Izabella Tarwacka call 'great grandneons'.
In the beginning, neons were produced for lighting. They were introduced for commercial purposes when electrodes were made sufficiently durable. The noble gases used for their production generated different colours: light blue for argon, light pink for helium, white for krypton, while xenon gave out a purplish-blue tint. In advertising, neons created compositions with luminous light-bulbs and illuminated signs, gradually taking centre stage.
In 1896, American electrical engineer and inventor Daniel MacFarlan Moore built a luminous tube which he used for experiments with nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Several versions later, some reached up to 61 metres in length. At the Electrical Exhibition of 1898, the "Moore Chapel," a small chapel mock-up illuminated by Moore’s tubes, at Madison Square Garden became the main attraction and brought the inventor to fame.
In 1907, in the midst of production of oxygen for medical and welding purposes, the French engineer and chemistry professor Georges Claude and the German engineer Carl von Linde created a spin-off - liquid air for distinguishing rare gases necessary for the functioning of glowing tubes. The resulting colour that exuded was a reddish orange.
Following World War I, neons became extremely popular in the United States. The neon-lit night-scapes of Las Vegas, Chicago and New York symbolised life in the American metropolis.
In France in the 20s, neons were used non-commercially for the first time. Its purpose had become art. In 1923 the painter and designer Sonja Delaunay created the "Zig Zag" neon, which later served as a prototype for her paintings and sculptures.
Warsaw flares forth
In independent Poland, advertisements made of luminous light bulbs and neons made a significant impact on the appearance of the city. This was especially true for the devastated and looted capital, which had previously been adorned by handmade signs.
After a couple of years of battling street ads, the Warsaw magistrate approved regulations in 1933 that made the city's shops and streets more permissive to neons than, for example, Berlin. Luminous signs had to be "arranged in a way that would not affect the appearance of the facade of the building and the view of the street". They were supposed to embellish the street and be safe for traffic. Blinking red lights harmful to the eye were forbidden, while interrupted lights eluded the regulations. In Berlin, where red was also out forbidden to shopkeepers, green and yellow which would mirror traffic lights were also outlawed.
The first neon sign in Warsaw, called by the press of those days the "Philips neon", was lit in 1926. Zieliński and Tarwacka indicate that the neon sign made of bottles with the inscription "Porter" and name of a brewery "Haberbusch i Schiele" (Haberbusch and Schiele) shone from the rooftop of the Marconi villa on the intersection between Marszałkowska Street and Aleje Jerozolimskie.
There were nearly 70 neons, mostly by unknown creators, in interwar Warsaw. Referred to as "semaphores on walls", they dotted roofs while blending in with the storefronts and were admired from afar. The ones that passers-by honed in on were mobile and narrative, like the neon of a bow-shooting centaur, the one with the silhouette of a cook carrying a steaming roast or the one of a big bottle which tips over and pours a mouthful of Cognac Montbel Marteau. The four phase cognac advertisement was on the roof of a building on the corner of Zgoda and Szpitalna streets. There was the monumental tobacco advertisement of the end of the 30s on Plac Teatralny - the moving " Herbewo Zwijki (Gilzy) Bibułki" sign (Herbewo Zwijki rolling paper) with a mobile cigarette tube which rose and fell and a streak of smoke which narrowed and thickened. Next to the cigarette was Mickey Mouse pointing to the logo. What makes the neon even more special is that its designer was the architect Zygmunt Stępiński, who became well known after the war.
Neons were promulgated by private initiatives and public institutions, but some were used as propaganda, like the "Dozbrójmy Polskę na morzu" (Let's rearm Poland on the sea) neon. Pictures of neons give us an idea of pre-war public services: the dance spot and restaurant "Adria", the "Ziemiańska" pastry, the "Quick" bar, the wine cellar "Bachus" or the cafe and dancing spot "Café Club", which happened to be one of the best known "For Germans Only" places during the occupation (today, selling books and albums on the place where it was stood is the book shop Empik on Nowy Świat Street).
Not many neons made it through the Second World War. Among the survivors are "K.K.O. m. st. Warszawy – Centr. Traugutta – Oszczędności – Lokaty – Pożyczki" (National Savings Bank of the City of Warsaw - Traugutta centre - Saving - Deposits - Loans) on the town house next to Hotel Polonia in Aleje Jerozolimskie (after 1952 it was re-purposed as "P.K.O. – Oszczędzaj w P.K.O." (Public Savings Fund - Save with P.K.O.) as well as the neons of "Femina" and "Atlantic" cinemas. The colour and exact position of some luminous inter-war advertisements remains unknown to contemporary researchers.
Another trace of pre-war neons is an enamelled sign nailed in the place of the no longer existing switches that used to activate the neons on the facade of the building on Bagatela Street 10. The hole is covered by the name of the company "Unic-Neon", which manufactured the above mentioned first Warsaw neon. Alongside Philips, the company dominated the Polish luminous ad market.
The golden age of neons
In post-war Poland, the state distribution system impeded private initiative, and advertisements were superfluous and even seen as antagonistic to the communist system. In the second half of the 40s and the first half of the 50s, neons could only be put up if they carried information or were decorative. A good example of utilitarian neons were the names of train stations in coloured tubes: "Warszawa Główna" from 1946 (Warsaw Main), "Warszawa Śródmieście" from 1949 (Downtown Warsaw) and cinemas: "Moskwa" (1950) and "Praha". All that was left of the pre-war neon installation "Hotel Polonia" was the bare word "Hotel".
One of the most exceptional neon projects of the time is the globe-shaped "Orbis" sign (1951) on the corner of the building at Aleje Jerozolimskie 34 which housed the headquarters of the state travel agency. It's one of the oldest functioning neons in Warsaw. The globe used to spin on its axis and the edges of the continents were red, the meridians and parallels blue.
After Stalin's death, private stores and service facilities began to reappear on the streets and signified the gradual revival of street ads.
In 1956, the communist government set up a company which manufactured neons for Warsaw and adjacent voivodeships - the advertising company Reklama, whose luminous signs reached the high quality standards of the pre-war installations. It continues to function as a private company, under a different name. At the end of the 50s, alongside the state-owned "Reklama", two labour cooperatives were founded - "Lumen" and "Spójnia". The former produced neons for Warsaw and the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. Among others, it manufactured the "Pałac Kultury i Nauki" neon (Palace of Culture), "Sala Kongresowa" (Congress Hall) and "Muzeum Wojska Polskiego" (Polish Army Museum).
The end of the 50s was declared the time of "neonisation", which implied the "illuminating" of cities. The almost entirely destroyed Warsaw, which for many years was submerged in darkness, was to become the European capital of neons. Accomplished architects and visual artists were tasked with designing individual neons and ads for entire buildings or stretches of street, of which Marszałkowska street is a good example. It was "neonised" in 1960 by Eleonora Sekrecka and Zygmunt Stępiński. The planned "illumination" of Puławska street was never completed due to financial obstacles. What remains of it today is the neon above cafe "Mozaik" (1971) on Puławska 35, designed by Maksymilian Krzyżanowski, Zbigniew Labes and Tadeusz Rogowski, the so-called neon group. The existing, but dilapidated neon "Dancing" (1962) on Nowy Świat Street 3 – with a star and music notes – is one of the most valuable relics of the "golden age of neons".
"That's when the unique style of Warsaw advertisements, in which intricate, even humorous, graphic elements were joined with inscriptions in creative fonts, was born. Alongside printed letters were cursive letters in non-standard fonts invented by visual artists, composed so elaborately that they looked more like ornaments than "simple" writing. The fairy tale like beauty of the lettering arouses fascination even in connoisseurs in this field from the West […]" – Zieliński and Tarwacka write in their book.
Foreign companies also had their share in the production of Warsaw neons. One of the most famous post-war Warsaw neons - the spiral arrow on the Centralny Dom Towarowy (Central Department Store) on Aleje Jerozolimskie was designed and manufactured by the government of the GDR as thanks for making one of the building's floors available for a German exhibition. Following a fire in 1975, the neon was never replaced.
To the neons' rescue
In the first decade of the 21st century artist, Paulina Ołowska stood up for neons which were being regularly discarded. The "Siatkarka" (Volleyball Player) neon from Plac Konstytucji that had witnessed the golden age of Marszałkowska street's "neonisation" received a second life. Designed by Jan Mucharski in 1960 and considered one of the capital's most beautiful neons, it was modernised thanks to Ołowska's private initiative in 2006. The fine action of a woman throwing a volleyball can still be seen today.
In a conversation with Agnieszka Kowalska for the newspaper Gazeta Stołeczna Ołowska explained what she saw in this particular neon:
"Because it's one of many neons from that exceptional time, when, thanks to the politics of lighting up the city, you could allow yourself to make a big advertisement, often abstract, designed by well-known artists. […] Besides that, I like that there's a strong, dynamic, athletic woman on it. […] I wanted to show that neons from that time could be equals with contemporary works of art. I wanted to pay off a kind of debt, because for years I had been drawing from the aesthetics of the 60s and 70s. My works referred to the utopian ideas of social realism and modernism."
A couple of years earlier, together with Robert Jarosz and Łukasz Gorczyca from Raster Gallery, Ołowska, set up an informal association called "Piękne neony" (Beautiful neons). They gathered archival materials, old photographs and postcards. Gorczyca wrote a narrative poem about "Siatkarka".
"Now we want to convince the Centre for Contemporary Art to start collecting old neons" – said Robert Jarosz. "The point is for all those advertisement which are taken down en masse not to end up in the scrapyard."
In the end, the neons and their legacy were cared for by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which received an abundant archive of projects created since the 1950s by the Reklama company. Numerous technical drawings show the original colours of the neons, which by coincidence survived till today, though in a different form.
Apart from drawings of the neons, the archive contains projects of signs for visual identification. Among others, there is the documentation for the Central Train Station and the Trasa Łazienkowska (Łazienkowska Thoroughfare), which was also the purview of Reklama advertising company. There are also photographs of old buildings.
"This collection is a real treasure. These aren't just neons. It's the whole of modernist Warsaw." – curator at Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Tomasz Fudala told the newspaper Życie Warszawy.
The archival drawings allow Paulina Ołowska to, among others, reconstruct a neon of a blinking cow that hangs above the milk bar on Krucza Street which once advertised a flower shop on the corner of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Krucza Street. Unfortunately, despite years of the artist's efforts, the neons produced by the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz never returned to their original location. Ołowska is not the only artist passionate about neons. The world renowned creator Bruce Nauman belongs to a group of artists who draw from the technique most often. Among Polish artists who worked with neons are Maurycy Gomulicki, Rafał Jakubowicz and Sophie Jocz.
Rescuing and conserving neons in their original location still remains an unresolved issue. Increasing numbers of people are involved in the modernisation of the exceptional luminous advertisements. The owners of a club restored the neon "Warszawa Powiśle", while TR Warszawa (a theatre company) restored a 70s neon with the sign "Teatr" which now hangs on their building on Marszałkowska Street 8. The neons that have evaded destruction are worth exposing in an "outdoor gallery" - on the street, not in a museum - claim the staff of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
A separate attitude is represented by the photographer Ilona Karwińska, who opened a private Neon Museum in 2012, located within the premises of the Soho Factory. Karwińska once documented Warsaw's neons from the 60s and 70s, and decided to create a space in which they would be safely stored. Her collection includes the neon "Syrenka" (Mermaid) from Grójecka Street, "Mydła Farby" (Soaps Paints) from Nowolipki Street, "Warszawa Wschodnia" (Warsaw East), "Kino Praha" as well as "Główna Księgarnia Techniczna" (Main Technical Bookshop). So far she has brought out two books about neons: "Warszawa Polski Neon" (2007) and "Polish Cold War Neon" (published in New York in 2011).