London-based Ilona Karwińska is a British/Polish fine art photographer whose work has featured in numerous international titles. She is also the driving force behind Warsaw’s acclaimed Neon Muzeum. She talks to the Insider about her celebrated project.
Where did the love affair with neon begin?
Although my partner David Hill (a graphic designer) first drew my attention to Warsaw’s neon signs, his immediate interest came from a deep creative interest in neon advertising, typography and architecture. My own personal fascination stemmed not only from their photogenic nature, but as decaying objects that in some way reflect the transience of the human experience and what we leave behind.
It’s said the Berlin neon in the museum is your favorite?
Berlin was the first neon sign to be photographed for my documentation project. Arriving to photograph the sign I noticed it had been removed and learned it was to be destroyed. I made contact with the owners and fortunately saved it from destruction. The letters were in very poor condition and needed urgent renovation so I took the sign to Reklama: it turned out to be the same company that originally made it in the 70s. The men at Reklama were amazed to see it again and shared their memories with me – the whole episode was quite serendipitous.
What problems do you hit when ‘hunting for neon’?
Old neon signs are getting much harder to find and acquire. So many have been destroyed – even since the beginning of my documentation project. Often the owners are impossible to contact or businesses close and the signs are scrapped without warning. On a lighter note, since the formation of the Neon Muzeum, more and more people are making enquiries on our behalf, or alerting us to a neon that may be at risk. Without our supporters – the general public – we would lose so many more design icons.
Warsaw is losing not just neons but other cultural ‘heirlooms’. Is this through greed? Ignorance? Or something else?
How can a neon sign that was designed for a particular shop or building remain, when the shop no longer exists or the building has changed owners and needs modernizing? Although it is sad that there have been many controversies involving the loss of architectural and neon landmarks, I personally feel that the urban landscape is always in flux: modernization and change is unavoidable in this context.
Neons tend to be associated with advertising, capitalism, etc. How did they fit into the socialist vision of PRL Poland?
The socialist authorities saw ‘neonization’ as an important cultural contribution. Although it wasn’t intended as advertising in the modern sense, it was used by the socialists as a way of reconciling socialism with consumerism in the post-war period.
Any thoughts on the neon of now?
I’m not that interested in modern neon, only the fascinating and creatively unique neon designs of the PRL period. However, there is a small but growing renaissance of this particular PRL neon design style emerging around Poland. Young entrepreneurs behind small cafe’s and boutiques are now favoring this style.
Do you have any favorites that still actually stand in Warsaw?
One of my favourite neons is the Syrenka mermaid on ul. Grójecka – once a library, we have renovated and saved her in-situ for posterity.
For more on Ilona and her work visit:
The Neon Muzeum can be found at: ul. Mińska 25 (Soho Factory), www.neonmuzeum.org