Polish Sign Art Then & Now
default, Polish Sign Art Then & Now, ‘Czas Świętowania w Kulturach Ludowych Polski i Europy’ (Celebration Time in Polish & European Folk Cultures), permanent exhibition at the Nationa, center, cepelia_forum.jpg
After the defacement of Poland’s cities by intrusive large-format advertisements, we are once again beginning to appreciate good design and stylish visual communication. How did the art of street signage develop?
The development of street advertising in Poland slowed down for obvious reasons in the crisis years of the 1980s, only to undergo a real revolution in the next decade. The political transformation liberated the business talents of Poles (or rather, forced them to ‘take matters into their own hands’): between 1991 and 2001, the number of small businesses in Poland rose from 494,000 to over three million – and the advertising market was growing proportionally. After all, each of these companies had to fight for clients and reach them with their offers.
A Foxtrot For Shampoo: Poland's Interwar Advertisement Songs
The ancients were already aware of the power of advertising – they praised their goods and services through inscriptions on walls, mentioning them in papyri and above all… in oral form. Advertising had its start in the shouts intended to attract customers’ attention. The roots of this can be found in the Latin word ‘clamo’, which means to shout, to call.
From shouts to signs
Shouted messages were the earliest methods of presenting offers. With time, however, the method of advertising products began to go in the direction of duplication: in printed form, in the press, on posters or leaflets, and in public spaces – as signboards, neon signs, or banners. While the invention of printing, and then the development of publicly available press, were a revolution for the evolution of paper advertising, signage became popular with the growth of cities in the 19th century.
The growing metropolises, with their ever-increasing populations, became trading hubs – and amongst the growing competition, entrepreneurs wanted to stand out, so that their messages would be more visible as well as memorable. Signboards grew larger, display windows more creative, and a 1910 invention – the neon sign – was quickly adapted and utilised. Large-format advertisements, painted directly onto the sides of buildings, also began to gain popularity. It can therefore be said that in the first half of the 20th century, street advertising was already a mass phenomenon.
Zofia Chomętowska - Neons - Image Gallery
Advertising slogans for Polish companies were written by Melchior Wańkowicz, and posters were painted by Wojciech Kossak. When Julian Tuwim and Antoni Słonimski vehemently parodied press announcements praising various products, famous actresses made extra money as models.
A History of Warsaw's Neons
Check out the trailer for Eric Bednarski’s film Neon, which takes you through this shining era in Warsaw’s history:
Even architects, historians and conservators responsible for the reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town understood the role of signages. They immediately included the need to recreate the older so-called ‘hanging signs’ in the project to rebuild this district by producing new ones in order to preserve the tradition. These signs were characteristic of this part of the city, hung on brackets and attached to the facades of buildings (it is worth adding that hanging signs had been used in Polish cities since the 15th century). The existence of advertising installations in Polish cities in the post-war years was not exactly related to marketing – it was rather the result of understanding how a well-designed sign or neon can enhance the landscape of a modern metropolis.
NEON MUSEUM in Soho Factory [video]
Considering how saturated urban spaces had become with various types of advertisements, Polish cities were actually on par with the European average. In the Interwar period, Warsaw’s streets sparkled with neon signs. They advertised various products, from soaps to radios, and they also announced the existence of fashionable cafés, candy shops, clothing or furniture stores. Neon signs – being more modern and apt at attracting attention faster – were a better advertising medium than traditional signboards. In 1936, Julian Tuwim wrote:
Storey by storey, in vivid flames, letters are flitting
And the electric Aurora flares in the night!
Blazed! Like a soaring meteor over Poland,
Become a luminous poem for the poets!
Look! Even the Vistula is surprised, when in the evening
You stab her with sharp daggers of colourful lights.
When advertisements were part of the city
Although the times of the Polish People’s Republic are not associated with booming consumerism or the development of trade (there were actually less and less goods in stores with each passing year), street advertising in those days was at its peak. From the end of the 1950s, a plan to illuminate the city’s streets was implemented by installing neon lights. Photos of Warsaw’s streets from the 1960s and 1970s, flashing with dozens of illuminated advertisements and signs, are still impressive to this day. The neon signs, in more traditional forms, were designed by many well-known artists of the time. Creating concepts for signs or shop window display decorations allowed them to earn money outside the politicised ‘mainstream’ of artistic activity.
Polish Literature & the City
standardowy [760 px]
Photograph from the exhibition ‘Warszawa Nieoczywista’ (Unobvious Warsaw), curated by Marta Przybyło-Ibadullajev, photo: Tadeusz Sumiński / courtesy of the Archeology of Photography Foundation
In the 1970s, most major businesses in Poland’s big cities had neon signs or representative signboards – from shops and restaurants, to editorial offices, hotels or railway stations. Importantly, they were examples of graphic design perfectly adapted to fit specific needs. Each place utilising this form of advertising had its own unique and recognizable logo – defining the brand – which didn’t require any supporting communication (i.e. a slogan). Expressed as neons or signs, the logos of Społem, Orbis, or E. Wedel – designed by the best graphic designers – are considered classics of Polish design.
Meet The Designers Behind Poland’s Most Memorable Logos
Advertising murals were equally as fascinating. Large-format images painted on the facades of buildings are today extremely popular as modes of artistic expression; back then, ads were created using a similar technique.
Do it yourself
The phenomenon of amateur production of advertisements and signs, which took place in the 1990s, is important because it contributed to the abundance of ‘free-for-all’ advertising – the consequences of which can still be observed today. The goal of supporting entrepreneurship in the early stages of the development of the free-market economy made advertising possible for practically everyone, without formal or aesthetic restrictions, or respect for the spatial order.
On the one hand, a real boom was experienced by advertising agencies, created on the model of those from the US or Western Europe – even constituting their branches and divisions. However, a much more expressive memento of those first years of Polish capitalism are the signs and advertisements created by the owners themselves, their relatives, or hired designers with little experience. In a collection of texts published in 2017 by the Kultura Miejsca Foundation entitled Polskie Las Vegas i szwagier z Corelem (The Polish Las Vegas and My Brother-in-Law Who Knows How to Use Corel), Agata Szydłowska wrote:
Quarantine Design: The Polish Artists Taking Action
A traditional artistic education was of little importance in the growing advertising market. With time, the figure of ‘szwagier z Corelem’ [a sort of joke meaning ‘a brother-in-law who knows to use the Corel programme and can make free or cheap designs for me’] appeared – it was used ironically and scornfully by professional designers to describe a person who has no formal education, but only computer equipment and is employed by clients who want to save money [...].
An excess of images
We are struggling with the effects of this advertising euphoria to this day – fighting with billboards obscuring views of the Tatra Mountains, with dozens of amateur signs covering historic tenement houses, or with giant billboards overwhelming city spaces. City authorities and social organisations are now trying to control this advertising chaos somehow. They reminisce fondly (and with envy) of the times of the Polish People’s Republic, when there were a lot of advertisements or neon signs in cities, except that these were beautifully and carefully designed, making them a decorative as well as valuable element of a city centre’s landscape.
Twelve Projects from Poland Up for European Prize for Urban Public Space 2016
However, before this urban advertising mess can be coherently sorted out, designers who deeply care about spatial order in cities have something to say (and do) in this matter. Since 2014, the Traffic Design Association, based in Gdynia, has been implementing the re:design project, which is aimed at changing the external visual identification of cities. In other words, ugly, uninteresting, overwhelming signs are changed into ideally designed, legible and aesthetic ones. Everything is done in close cooperation not only with craftsmen, entrepreneurs and shop owners, but also with local authorities. So far, Traffic Design has implemented its projects in Gdynia and Warsaw, and as part of more individual activities in other cities (Leszno, Gostyń, Saint-Étienne).
Furnishing The City: Polish Design for Public Spaces
The culmination of their experiences has resulted in a publication, published together with the City of Gdynia: Od Strony Ulicy: Poradnik Dobrych Praktyk Szyldowych dla Śródmieścia Gdyni (Street View: A Guide to Good Signage Practices for Central Gdynia). Although this compendium of knowledge was created with a specific space in mind, it is full of tips for any city struggling with advertising chaos.
A change for the better
standardowy [760 px]
'Tailoring Remakes' by Jakub Stępień aka Hakobo, Gdynia, 2015, photo: Rafal Kolsut / www.trafficdesign.pl
Graphic designers and design studios have been invited to cooperate on the re:design project to create concepts for new signs and minor renovations of entire store or service-point surroundings. In this way, the craftsman, the client as well as passers-by benefit – a minor change in the character of the advertisement turns out to be a significant element in improving the quality of urban space. The Traffic Design Association also deals with other urban details – it organises the repainting of pastel apartment blocks, makes attractive renovations of skyways, and devises designs for street lighting.
18 Most Important Polish Graphic Designers of the 20th Century
In an interview for the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Monika Domańska from Traffic Design explained:
We encourage some of the most interesting and popular designers to work with us on projects that are generally available, free and visible. […] We try to democratise design – so that it doesn’t belong only to people who are able to pay for it, but that thanks to aesthetic signs, gates, and urban details, it would be available to everyone. We want nice things to surround people in public spaces.
standardowy [760 px]
‘Maszyny do szycia’ by Typy Studio, photo: Rafal Kolsut / www.trafficdesign.pl
Is it possible for advertising in the city to be tasteful? Could it possibly make public spaces more appealing instead of contorting them? Instances from past decades prove that signboards, billboards and neons are a significant part of a city’s aesthetics, and they don’t have to generate chaos. We already have good examples from the past as well as conscious and talented contemporary designers, so it seems that a good foundation has been established for future actions which can rectify the chaos caused by visual advertisements.
Greetings from Zamość: A Literary Guide to the ‘Perfect’ City
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, Jun 2019, translated by Agnes Dudek, Jul 2020