They gain interest of the passerbys. They are old school and can be bent to resemble handwriting or almost any font or shape that you desire. They were once present in vast amounts especially in Warsaw which was a self-proclaimed "mecca" of this type of art. Since the change of system in Poland their disappearance started to be inevitable giving way to the new, cheaper, methods of advertising. The neons once forgotten are having their next honeymoon as more and more places appreciate them to lure potential customers or pay respect to the retro form that they resemble. Neons are back.
The tough history and big comeback
The history is long and not without a difficult childhood. The first neon in Polands's capital was created in 1926 and resembled a bottle with the name "Porter". It was located on the crossing of Marszałkowska street and Jerozolimskie alleys right in the city centre. Since then several times Warsaw's streets were illuminated with this art form and several times it was on the verge of extinction. Through the turbulent times the disappearance first started before World War II. Second was in the 70's due to huge national debt and the need to economise (which meant cutting electricity bills). Third was on the verge of the fall of communism in Poland in 1989. Untill the change of systems:
"Preparation of one neon took even 3 years. After first drafts, the project had to be accepted by the Plastic-in-chief of Warsaw and then made and installed." - Domosfera
One of the first neons in the 60's was "Siatkarka" (en. volleyball player) on Konstytucji square. It was created by a renown, at that time, artist Jan Mucharski in 1961. In the similar time few other installations sprung to life. Among them, quite vivid, "Izis" which still stands today as a medical clinic.
After a longer break caused by fascination of Western culture and modern, not so pretty and tactful trends, neons are celebrating their revival. All thanks to a project by Ilona Karwińska who was photographing the neons that were still in existence and has created an exhibition with the intention of giving them another life. Later on, together with her husband David S. Hill, has opened a Museum of Neon in 2005. This project is very popular among tourists as well as locals. In the exhibition one can see more than 100 neons from the 50's through to the 70's. This exhibition has also seen some places in Europe like London, Luxembourg and Amsterdam. The Neon Muzeum is permanently based in Soho Factory, Praga district. It is said that during the European Museum Nights 2015 the gallery has attracted over 18,000 visitors in a one night.
An exceptional craftsman
Knowing the above I still wanted to get to know the history the history of captial's neon revolution from the source. I searched for people having crafted them and helped in their popularisation. Through my research I found Mr Jacek Hanak who was once working in (probably) the oldest company that has made neons in Warsaw. He was working in the 70s in "Stołeczne Przedsiębiorstwo Instalacji Reklam Świetlnych" (established in 1956) which in 1993 changed it's name to to "Reklama" (en. advertisment) where he held a position of Manufacturing Director.
It has a long history and broad portfolio of neon works (and not only) as well as many revitalisations done in Poland's capital and other major cities in the country. Throughout the time the company has split and Mr Hanak has continued his work as "Hanak Reklama" company. Throughout his years of work he has put to life, with his team of exceptional craftsman, the most known and prestigious projects on Warsaw's neon scene. He was also one of the authors of projects for illuminating the capital's streets such as Puławska street and Śródmieście.
I had taken the opportunity to visit his workshop and take some photographs of a neon being made. The workshop itself is rather small. Still, when being there one might think that the time has stopped. There are are no fancy solutions or state-of-art equipment. None is needed. There is, nonetheless, a vibe of a true workshop that has a long history and a soul. Somewhat resembling those of our grandfathers or fathers. From my observations there are very few left of that kind giving way to more modern trends. While being there, I thought to myself that I could just sit there and look at the works being done or, even better, do something myself if somebody equipped me with the knowledge. It was that intersting.
Mr Jacek himself is a very approachable and open-minded man. By his courtesy I managed to conduct a short interview with him about his experience and some of the interesting situations he encountered. Part of the transcript of our conversation you can find below. The whole conversation is available as a recording underneath and is held in Polish.
Marcin Konkel (M): How did you get interested, fascinated with neon manufacturing?
Jacek Hanak (J): In the advertising company I am working since 1973. There wasn't any fascination with neons, everyone was working somewhere. I own my company for many years now. Leading the "Reklama" company at the same time I had my own firm. In "Reklama" I was working as Manufacturing Director - I had much experience and much was dependent on me. Earlier on I was working at "Stołeczne Przedsiębiorstwo Instalacji Reklam Świetlnych" which was employing back then 350 people, had it's own project office, equipment base. That is not present anymore. Based on this "Reklama" has emerged. That's it. I still don't see my fascination in this.
It's rather like this that it's important to me that people after a day's work will say "that's what I wanted to achieve". Not "If I knew something then I would change something here and there". And I have many praises coming back to me and this is my satisfaction. I do what I like because I got accustomed to it. Everything is dependent upon me in the company and the people are happy that they have what they need.
M: It seems like the perfect deal.
J: And it is a perfect deal. It is. I make some money on it. I'm not rich and I'm not going to be rich. I don't lack money due to my needs. It's a kind of a workshop. But thanks to it being a workshop one can do what he wants. When it were departments [in the former companies - red.] it was hard to do when each department was doing something different. And thanks to this the artists, people fascinated with neons, will come to me and I can refer to any detail and take care of every detail.
M: How do you recall the beginnings of neon? What stuck in your memory from that times?
J: There was too much momentum going on back then. The founding body was [the city's - red.] the president. It was like that we even had our own models because it was "Reklama" [en. advertising - red.]. The equipment base was huge but we never could have used the car because these were the times where everyone thought it's a bit theirs. The head of equipment base, the driver or the operator and it was hard to get a lift when you wanted to hang an advert because, allegedly, others have ordered it first earlier.
So today, everyone are specialising in their own piece. Someone has a base of equipment, he uses the equipment themselves and watches the workers. When there was a huge glass factory many jobs could be cut. But this was during the communism. I recently got back from Cuba and they have now what we had in the past.
The above is just a small part of our talk. You can listen (in Polish) the above below.
You can also listen the second part of the interview below and find answers to questions like:
- Did the censorship influence neon trends in communism?
- What has changed along the years?
- What was the biggest challenge you faced through the years?
- and much more
How does it work?
Neon has a long history o making. The first neon sing was created by a frenchman by the name of Georges Claude in 1910. Though there were some developments and improvements, the technology has not changed significantly. It's still about the gas and how well a tube can be made according to Mr Hanak. The electronics stimulating the gas have advanced. The tubes themselves are filled with either neon noble gas (giving red colour) or argon (responsible for blue colour). The colours appear when the gas is stimulated by electric field induced by electricity. Other colours are created by covering the tubes in special paint. Nowadays, the tubes also tend to be coated from the inside with a phosphor layer which, through the striking electrons and ions, emits various colours of light. The lifetime of a neon is very long (apart from any physical damage done to it) if the work was done properly. It can fade a bit over time yet still being able to illuminate.
A making of a neon is not something easy although there are exceptions. A making of a simple, small project can take even one day. The largest ones take from three months to four months of day to day work. These include sometimes hundreds of meters of light tubes and some welding works. It may be a lot harder to make a project then to craft the neon if the maker is experienced. There are times when the demand exceeds the capacities of a certain workshop and there is a queue is created.
Neons need not to be still. There are (and were) neons creating kind of an animation. "Siatkarka" was one of them and quite a simple one with the ball being animated. In terms of commercial projects "Szwejk" restaurant has a really nice chimney (also made by Mr Hanak) that puffs as you can see below. Both you can see at Konstytucji Square in the Downtown South part of Warsaw.
In the public space the big comeback can be already seen although changes are going slower then in the commercial field. Few larger renovations have taken place since the revival. In various parts of the city the old and restored is mixed with the new giving some parts of the city a new retro look. Surely one may find works of the average or poor kind, not subtle and inspiring but shouting and artistically worthless. Still, the latter is in the minority and rather owned by private owners of shops wanting to gain attention at little cost.
One of the first, and certainly most celebrated, renovations in public space was Warszawa Powiśle train station. The former kiosk selling train tickets, looking like a UFO has been refreshed and established as a bar. It also somewhat accidentally initiated Warsaw's hipster scene after the works finished in 2009. Among the new look it's neon was also given a new life and is still illuminating showing visitors and commuters way to the station. A more recent examples of the new life of neons in public space are "Kioskarz" located near Konstytucji square in the city centre as well as, earlier mentioned, "Siatkarka".
Apart from the above, the common areas are also fortunate to be invested in. In 2014 thanks to financial support of RWE Energy a neon "Miło Cię widzieć" (en. It's nice to see you) on Gdański bridge was setup. The illumination of the sign, created in the traditional technique, has gathered 100 000 people during the midsummer night. The author of the project, Mariusz Lewczyk, has been the winner of the competition "Neon for Warsaw" which resulted in the physical appearance of this artwork in public space.
The highest number of neons is visible on Konstytucji Square as well as along Marszałkowska street (crossing the square) and Puławska street. These two thoroughfares (one of the longest in the capital) were the first to be illuminated in the long history of neon in Warsaw. The tradition continues one could say.
Appearance of neons on private businesses was right from the start of the history in Warsaw. Remember the "Porter" neon? It was presumably the first advert for the beer from Żywiec. Thus, it's hard to talk about commercialisation nowadays. Some new businesses though treat it as a feature that can gain their attention or enhance the interior. Some even do it quite nicely. I talked to Rafał Piwowar, co-owner of one of Warsaw's new restaurant's called "Śródmieście Południowe" (en. Downtown South) that has gained attention, among others, for it's large neon right in front of the entrance. The restaurant is branded as "Śrd / Płd" and it's the first place in Warsaw were a restaurant is mixed with a concept store.
"The idea for a neon was coined after around half-year's work on the project. (...) We knew that we wanted an industrial looking venue (...). Our architect, Carlos, has suggested it would be good to make something of the space on the ceiling as the space is quite empty and so the idea for the neon come to our minds. (...) People that come, in 80% cases take a photograph of this neon." - Rafał Piwowar
Neons are widely used in businesses especially those on Puławska and Marszałkowska streets and downtown. It's nice to see that things are happening for this type of art. It gives a certain flair to the streets at night making you stroll slower and admire the colours and illumination. Fairly new restaurants take the such as Aioli or Varsovie take the example of other places and make neons one of their main features. Notice that when walking around Plac Konstytucji (en. Constitution Square) and try to count the number of neons that are within your eyesight when standing in the centre isle. You might be surprised.
All in all, the neon trend will probably plateau on a certain level and keep on delighting us with it's vivid warm lights. We might also push ourselves with the love too far towards exaggeration. "IZIS" neon might be a good example as it's surrounded by other, smaller ones, shouting towards everyone close by and far away making an overstatement from it's message. In finding it's way through the trend it seems that Warsaw will still, for the time being, be considered as the capital of neon craft. Still, taking care of the public space and making sure it improves not degrades the architecture around us is in all of us. This is not only on the city's shoulders but also various craftsman and creative agencies to pay attention on the quality of work and their morale overcoming the luring effect of money..
See full neon gallery from this reportage here.