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Ilona Karwinska: Polish Cold War Neon

Posted by Rob Alderson,

Neon’s renaissance as the glitzy, gaudy go-to medium of artists like Tracey Emin is only one side of the material’s story. Photographer Ilona Karwinska, a graduate of Goldsmiths and The London College of Printing, is obsessed with its use in Poland, as weary signs of a country’s dreams left unfulfilled. Her beautiful new book Polish Cold War Neon collects hundreds of her most eye-catching images, and in this exclusive extract from the book’s foreword she explains her mission to preserve her country’s neon heritage.

“During a visit to Warsaw in 2005, something quite unexpected caught my eye – the remnants of another time – a rather lonely, yet monumental sign, “Dancing Restauracja,” which ran the entire length of the Prudential building, and the welcoming glow of the fully working neon “Berlin” near Constitution Square.

“Curiously still advertising goods, services, and products long gone, these fascinating signs inspired me to begin documenting Cold War era neon signs, in a project I entitled Polish Neon. After comprehensively photographing in the capital, I then set off on a journey throughout Poland in search of more evidence of a once grand plan to illuminate the entire country with neon.

“From the start, what remained of these neon graphics absolutely captivated me. Was it the unique typefaces, symbols ,and craftsmanship, or was it the evident neglect and decay that prompted me to document and ultimately try to preserve these signs? I soon learned that what was happening in Warsaw was being repeated in other cities: these neon signs were disappearing rapidly. As I travelled through Poland’s towns and cities “hunting neons” I occasionally accepted defeat and left empty handed.

“All too often, it seemed that no one else noticed the neons until there were barely any left. Whenever I came upon a discarded sign, or one earmarked for destruction, I would set about salvaging what I could, Over the years, my collection of images and neon lettering grew until a storage space was needed. This was to be the foundation of the first Neon Museum in Poland.

“My project is dedicated to the many designers, draftsmen, and neon makers of this extraordinary time. This is their story.”

This foreword is reproduced with permission from the artist and the publishers.

The book is available at www.amazon.co.uk/polishcoldwarneon

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Posted by Rob Alderson

Editor-in-Chief Rob oversees editorial across all three It’s Nice That platforms; online, print and events. He has a background in newspaper journalism and a particular interest in art, advertising and photography. He is the main host of the Studio Audience podcast.