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A Brief History
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A Brief History

Polish Neon in the 50s, 60s and 70s 

POLITICAL CONTEXT 

The atmosphere of the political thaw at the turn of 1955, introducing new regulations, which allowed larger advertisements, as well as the government’s decision to ‘neonize’ Warsaw, were the primary reasons for which illuminated promotions flourished on the streets. Before these new laws were implemented, large promotional forms were practically absent; only small signs in shop windows were acceptable. In 1955, the Ministry of Internal Trade established a set of regulations, which enabled different ways of promoting goods and services. Furthermore, it set up the “Reklama” (Advertisement) national establishment which began working in February of 1956, focusing on publicity, from leaflets to neons. The authorities declared their acceptance of neons and this form of publicity gained press interest. The public encouraged changing the urban landscape, inspired by Paris, Hamburg, London and pre-war Warsaw. This was a concept entirely unfamiliar to the centrally controlled communist economy. 

The growth and development of this domain of applied arts in Poland is also a consequence of what might seem hard to understand now; the fact that neon advertisements served not only commercial purposes. The concept of ‘neonizing’ was also used as a medium to turn Warsaw into a city with a European appeal. Neons were intended as decorative elements, appropriately merged with the urban environment, in harmony with its architecture. The designers of neons and other forms of publicity were brilliant artists, architects and graphic designers. In their projects they enciphered their pre-war graphic inspirations; they referenced a period during which creating signs and advertisements turned from craft into art. 

Neon projects had to correspond with the architectural design of the building. The best example of such approach to the urban landscape can be observed in Aleje Jerozolimskie. Here, architects Jan Bogusławski and Bohdan Gniewiewski conducted both the construction of buildings, as well as supervised the installation of neons placed on their facades. Neon designs, along with their technical documentation, had to be accepted by the city’s architect. The documents were kept in the Department of Architecture of the National Council Presidium and were later placed in the city’s archive. These materials allow us to reconstruct the process of the ‘neonization’ of Warsaw, the formalities and rules, which accompanied obtaining permission for placing neons on buildings and the cost of these advertisements. What is most important is that the archival data helps preserve the memory of the neon artists, who until recently remained nameless. 

ADVERTISING COMPANIES 

The 1956-1960 period was defined by the explosion of neon signs in all major Polish cities. As a consequence, the number of enterprises, which offered services connected to the construction of neons quickly increased. Apart from the Advertising Services “Reklama”, others emerged, such as the S.B.D.T. Worker Cooperative, the Light Publicity Group in Warsaw, Plastic Arts Studio, the Worker Cooperative “Spójnia” and the Light Publicity Cooperative “Lumen”. Despite difficult conditions created by the socialist economy, these companies maintained a very competitive relationship. As a consequence, in 1960, universal rules were applied to three major companies: “Lumen”, “Reklama” and “Spójnia” . They were forbidden to take away each other’s orders and their specializations and profiles were strictly set. 

LEGAL REGULATIONS 

The Ministry of Internal Trade was responsible for the strict regulation of the neonization process. In 1958, a Publicity Program Committee was created, in order to decide upon detailed guidelines concerning neon designs. New rules applied to the choice of neon colors, fonts and other technical aspects. 

COLOURS 

Yellow, green and red were reserved for neons with more sophisticated shapes, simple neons were kept in blue and purple tones. A certain contrast was maintained, in order to provide the neon with adequate display; yellow was put together with black, white with green or red. Designers installing neons on rooftops avoided blue shades, since a blue neon would be less visible against the skyline.

The character of the illuminated object was an equally significant determinant of neon colors. Butcher shops chose neons in red, greengrocers - green; drugstores - light purple; bakers - yellow; paint shops were marked by rainbow colors. Blue and purple were avoided in the gastronomical business. Historic buildings and other places of historical significance were marked by white, light blue and light purple neons and such style was maintained on the entire street. 

LETTERFORMS & TECHNICAL RULES 

The cardinal rule, which applied to all neon typefaces, was to maintain visual clarity. Neons on rooftops were designed in block letters only (their size was formally determined), the ones placed on façades were fancier and allowed for more creativity. The content and message of neons was always short and concise. The main technical recommendations were:

a) Keeping the neon visually light by using a subtle shape with a construction made of steel frames filled with a metal mesh;
b) Achieving the best visibility of the neon illumination by placing it against specific base colours. This was best achieved when the base metal was white: giving 80% reflected light. The next in order was a yellow base: 70% light, green base: 60% light, blue base: 50% light, the red base was the least visible giving only 35% reflected light. 

THE SIXTIES 

After the spontaneous and creative fifties, new rules regarding the neonisation project appeared in 1960. From this point neons could only be installed on main arteries of the biggest cities in Poland. In Warsaw they were allowed only on several main streets such as Aleje Jerozolimskie, Marszałkowska, Nowy Świat and their intersecting streets. It was decided that for a more spectacular effect there would be a greater number of vertical semaphore neons instead of signs which horizontally spanned façades. It was also agreed that more white and pastel shades should be used; this new inspiration was the result of a Polish delegate’s visit to Paris. The installation of large neons on the frontages of small shops was discouraged, and it was suggested that small forms of neons should be placed in shop interiors instead. Placing neons on rooftops and in small alleyways was to be avoided. 

„Jelonek”(Deer), Grójecka22. JanBogusławski, 1956 

The Association of Architects and Graphic Designers established a list of artists who were to be permitted to design neons. The Ministry was also advised to remove the monopoly which saw a select group of architects creating neons with the buildings they designed. However, this was ultimately a poor decision and led to discrepancies in the urban aesthetic. Since conflicts occurred between competing companies; a phenomenon undesirable in the socialist economy, tasks were formally distributed between “Reklama”, “Spójnia” and “Lumen”. During a conference in 1960 the Ministry of Internal Trade officially gave PUR “Reklama” privileged status. The company then dominated the sixties when it became the main neon manufacturer for government trade organisations. The Ministry itself, from this point forward, controlled the company’s schedule and projects. 

PUR “Reklama” grew stronger and in 1960 operated four neon factories producing 2000 meters of neon tubes a month. With the increase of the amount and size of commercial buildings, the size of neons increased as well. For example, one Warsaw Delicatessen ordered a sign made of 1500 meters of neon tubes, whereas the capacity of a typical Warsaw glassmaker was only 600 meters a month. In 1962, expansion led to five factories producing 3800 meters a month. Further representatives of PUR “Reklama” were established throughout Poland (in eleven cities by 1962). In 1959 production levels were valued at 75 million zloties; only two years later it had reached 97 million zloties.

PUR “Reklama’s” most spectacular success was producing seventeen neons for the 1962 World Ski Championships (FIS) in Zakopane. These neons were meant to dazzle visitors from abroad. PUR “Reklama” also initiated innovative solutions (by Polish standards) and in 1961 established a psychology laboratory which employed two psychiatrists. Their task was to conduct research on the content of advertising slogans (including neons). They investigated what was remembered and expected from information transmitted via advertisements. They were also required to analyse the relationship between the influence of advertising and the duration of the decision-making process. 

„Gallux” (Trading Company), plac Zbawiciela. Zbigniew Labes, 1957 

BUREAUCRACY 

Increasing bureaucracy made it difficult to obtain permission for new neon designs. During the sixties, the list of required documentation was systematically enlarged. In 1969, a positive recommendation was necessary to install a neon and a series of permissions from: the district’s architect, the building’s owner, the building’s architect, the heritage conservator (when related to historical buildings or monuments), the Committee of Graphic Arts, an electrician, the constructor, the technical director, the city’s architecture department and an expert committee in the City’s Council. All these were required in order to obtain permission for construction in the city’s department of architecture. Therefore, the process for approval for any neon project could take up to three years.

The city’s urban bureaus created their own neonisation plans. One such surviving plan for the Warsaw district of Wola in 1966, contains documentation of 90 existing neons and plans for another 103. The growing bureaucracy and popularity of neon advertising resulted in the economic inefficiency of PUR “Reklama”. It became a victim of its own success. Many failed inspections and audits led to the liquidation of the enterprise in 1971. In its place, in 1972, the Metropolitan Light Advertising Enterprise (SPIRŚ) was created, and existed under this name until 1993. 

 „Kongo”, ul.Puławska67. Tadeusz Chlebowski, 1962

THE DARK SIDE OF NEONS 

The technical qualities of Polish neons left a lot to be desired. The production of electrode technology was particularly unreliable. For example, in 1956, the very first “Jubiler” neon was hung on Puławska Street, with a neon chain falling from the building’s façade. Although conceptually attractive and very impressive, its complicated design and faulty elements led to a conflict between the commissioner and the contractor, which lasted over half a year. Another neon, which was installed at the Warsaw train station, illuminated the building as “WARSZAWA G...ÓWNA”, lacking one letter. Instead of representing the station, it became a vulgar, ironic joke. 

The issue of neon repairs was conditional upon a bureaucratized political structure. As a consequence, applications for these repairs were considered weeks after the failure was reported, thereby a six-month warranty was too short to suffice, and the repairs too expensive. To improve this situation, in 1961, PUR “Reklama” formed a Consultation Centre in central Warsaw, where emergency mechanics were based and could be asked for assistance in the event of any neon malfunction. Regular patrols were also introduced in order to inspect neons and prevent these awkward situations occurring. At the same time, new technological solutions were introduced, intensified and improved. In 1962, PUR “Reklama” established a Technical Council. It also gathered all the patterns and photographs of neon signs in order to standardize and rationalize neon production. Despite all these efforts, the economic situation deteriorated in the second half of the sixties and neon production halted. There was no money left even for repairs. 

NEON IN COURT 

Neon often brought misery to the city’s residents. Large and dazzling signs were placed on the roofs and façades of residential buildings. The neon light penetrated through the thickest curtains and often disrupted the sleep of nearby tenants. Static (due to poor quality transformers), attracted insects and also caused interference to radio and TV signals. In most cases, the protestations and interventions of residents (living in a country of limited civil liberties) were unsuccessful. The neon “PKO Savings” in Nowa Huta, Krakow, prevented reception of radio and television. Residents did not give up and directed the case to the district court. In 1962, neon stood before the court. It was the first such trial for disturbances caused by ozone gases. Due to censorship at the time the court verdict is unknown.

THE SEVENTIES

The seventies saw a new neon revival. In 1969, the authorities commissioned the design of neonisation projects for local districts. A new development program for neon advertising was created, and was presented to the highest authority at the time, the Secretary of the Communist Party (PZPR). The project was approved and became the basis for future neon activity. Due to the inflow of foreign currencies, the funds for state-sponsored advertising increased. Steps to reduce the bureaucracy were taken; old institutions were closed and new ones opened with the intention of simplifying neon procedures. 

In 1970 in Warsaw, the Committee of Publicity Coordination, which collabo- rated with the city architecture department was closed. Instead, an inter- departmental publicity council (which had 26 members) was opened in 1973, under the management of the Ministry of Internal Trade. A new office was introduced; Warsaw’s Chief Graphic Designer (Naczelny Plastyk Warszawy) replacing the Chief Architect, who made the final decisions for neon installations. In 1971 in Warsaw, neonisation projects prepared by all district authorities were centralised. The great neonisation project for Puławska Street dates back to precisely that period with an impressive list of 84 new neons designs. Architecture departments from other districts were also required to create neon projects for their main arteries. In Ochota, for example, a plan was developed for 38 new neons on Grójecka Street. Neons from the seventies varied from their predecessors; they were larger in scale, more often placed on rooftops, and they appeared predominantly as block letters forms. No more squiggly ornaments, a characteristic of the fifties, were to be used. 

THE NEON ARTISTS

Today, one can have no more doubt that neons are an intrinsic element of the history of 20th century Polish design. Thanks to numerous sources and archival data we are now able to identify the authors of the neon signs and complete the various gaps in the history of Polish Applied Arts. 

We should acknowledge the artists who created the neon landscape of Warsaw; although it is impossible to mention them all. Neons were designed by brilliant architects and graphic designers like Jan Mucharski, Jan Bogusławski, and Bohdan Gniewiewski. Furthermore, the Neon Group artists — Tadeusz Rogowski, Maksymilian Krzyżanowski, Zbigniew Labes also, Marek Brudnicki, Stefan Bernaciński and Ryszard Lech

Jan Mucharski (1900-1981) was a pioneer of Polish advertising graphics. From an education in architecture he worked mainly as a graphic designer, illustrator and painter. He was part of a group of architects, that in the interwar period, reformed the 1920s Polish Poster School. In 1924, under the direction of Professor Karol Frycz, he prepared the first overseas exhibition of Polish Design in Constantinople. During his diverse career, he worked with advertising agencies: the graphics and advertising studio “Plakat”, Advertising studio “ARA”, as well as advertising studio and bookstore, Railway Society “Ruch”. He organised many exhibitions and undertook commissions to design poster advertisements, as well as neon signs. He also designed and produced the illustrations for “Weekly Commercial”, “Illustrated Weekly”, “Cinema” and the magazine “Around the World”. He was the founder of Advertising Graphic Artists, and was active in the Polish Association of Advertising. Even in his day he was appreciated and awarded accolades. In 1937 he won the Gold and Bronze Medals at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris. After WWII he continued his work as an illustrator and designer of neon signs and other advertising projects. Only after his death was his work was presented in a monographic exhibition in the Poster Museum in Warsaw. Amongst his many brilliant projects Mucharski deserves special attention for his Kopińska Hall advertisement design, the “Crafts” 12 neon on Nowy Świat, and the iconic neon for the “Zoological Gardens” — all designed in 1959. 

„Rękodzieło” (Handicrafts), ul.Nowy Świat 64. JanMucharski, 1959 

Tadeusz Rogowski, Maksymilian Krzyżanowski and Zbigniew Labes and others were known as the Neon Group — who, in the 60s and 70s in Warsaw, monopolized the neon sign design market. 

Tadeusz Rogowski, like Jan Mucharski, began his artistic career before WWII. Born in Lvov, in 1912, he studied law and journalism at the University of Warsaw, but privately he studied drawing and fine arts. From 1937, he was employed as a graphic designer at the Orbis Travel Group. He worked with Tadeusz Gronowski, creator of the Polish Poster School, when he was an employee at the weekly magazine “Graphics”. After the war he worked in the Office of Publications of Polish Radio, and then went on to design the neon lights of Warsaw, in cooperation with the Universal Advertising Agency RSSW Press. His neon projects are some of the most original, such as: the neon semaphore “Sewing Machines”, 138 Marszałkowska, (1959); the neon “Warsaw Soaps and Cosmet- ics Factory”, 20 ul. Szwedzka, (1959); the butcher shop neon “Three Piglets” 13, 38 ul. Puławska, (1959); the famous neon “Atlantic” cinema, Chmielna 33, (1959); the neon semaphore “Appliance Store”, 30 Al. Jerozolimskie, (1959); the neon “Motorcycle Factory Shop Warsaw” 14, 16/18 ul. Krucza, (1957); the neon Dramatic Theatre, Palace of Culture and Science, (1959), which still exists today; and the neon “Restaurant Boar” and “Restaurant Deer” on ul. Nowogrodzka (both in 1957). Of additional interest are the neon semaphores “Beer House”, 150 Marszałkowska, (1960); and the neon “Fashion House”, pl. Zbawiciela, (1959); finally, the neon “Polish Records”, 24/26 ul. Krucza (1958). 

„Trzy Świnki” (Three Piglets), ul. Puławska 38. Tadeusz Rogowski, 1959 

Jan Bogusławski (1910-1982) worked as an architect and interior designer, for which he received the Grand Prix at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1936. Mobilized in 1939, he was captured in the early months of the war and interned in a POW camp in Woldenberg throughout the war. In January 1945 he returned to Warsaw and began working in the Office of the Capital Recon- struction. He was the author of the neons “Chinka” (Chinese Girl) and “Jedwabie” (Silks) on Al. Jerozolimskie (both from 1959). He also designed neons for “Kino Praha” and the now defunct pavilion “Chemia”. Together with another architect Bohdan Gniewiewski (1922-1992), they designed Poland’s first fast food restaurant “Bar Praha”, as well as designing buildings on Al. Jerozolimskie. Bogusławski and Gniewiewski designed the neons “Pralinka” (Praline) and “Wełny” (Wool) on Al. Jerozolimskie (both from 1959). A significant part of Bogusławski’s architectural achievements were the projects for theatres and opera houses, including opera houses in Madrid, Budapest and Leipzig. 

„Warszawskiej Fabryki Motocykli” (Motorcycle Factory), ul. Krucza 16/18. Tadeusz Rogowski, 1957 

Maksymilian Krzyżanowski was the author of the iconic neon “Cepelia” on Con- stitution Square (1959) and the “FSO Service Depot” at ul. Towarowa (1959). He also designed the recently renovated sign “Stefan Żeromski Bookshop” on al. “Solidarnosci” (1958); the oldest surviving in-situ neon sign. Zbigniew Labes designed the well-known “Gallux” 10 neononpl. Zbawiciela, (1957), and the “Central Scouting Depot” on Marszałkowska (1958).

Also deserving of a mention are the neon signs designed by graphic artists Stefan Bernaciński, Marek Brudnicki and Ryszard Lech. Before the war Stefan Bernaciński (1915-1989) studied at the School of Decorative Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw. He was a master of lettering, graphic textbooks and the author of film posters. He designed neon signs for “Delikatesy” 15 on Nowy Świat (1958). 

„Delikatesy” (Delicatessen), ul. Nowy Świat 53. Stefan Bernaciński, 1958 

Marek Brudnicki (1912-1985) was a well-known creator of bookplates and designed many neons. Of note are “Kabanos” (Sausage) on Al. Jerozolim- skie, “Kwiaty” (Flowers) on ul. Puławska, and the semaphore neon “SAM” on Marszałkowska (all from 1959).

Ryszard Lech (1927-2005) was a graphic design graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under Professor Tadeusz Kulisiewicz. He created fine gouaches, watercolors, linocuts, and was fascinated with Japanese writing; producing a series of paintings in which the main components are Japanese typographic symbols. He created the outstanding neon sign for bar “Kuchcik” 16 on Nowy Świat (1959). 

„Kuchcik” (Little Chef) ,ul. Nowy Świat 64. Ryszard Lech, 1959 

1980-1989

The 1980s brought an end to the era of neon. The economic crisis which had started in the late 70s, followed by martial law (from 1981 to 1983), and the slow-but-steady economic and political decline, caused the disappearance of the communist-era neon signs from the streets of Poland. There were more important socio-economic needs than street aesthetics, and because the neons represented only decorative function in the socialist economy they became financially unviable and obsolete. Although neon production continued on a greatly reduced scale, they were poorer in design and material quality, as well as costly to maintain. Due to a severe lack of money for repairs they often appeared incomplete with fragmented inscriptions and broken semaphores.

Today, few neons survive on the streets of Poland, but the remainder, preserved and renovated, may be seen at the Neon Muzeum. 

Magdalena Pęzińska

Historian, Archivist Museum of Warsaw

© Neon Muzeum 2020