Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson receiving Winsor and Newton Art Prize for their mixed media painting, Future Leisure.
From the 1970s and 80s, Michael collaborated with Nichola Bruce, directing film and television projects for their company Muscle Films. Michael also collaborated with Nichola under the guise of their graphics company Kruddart and they made a reputation for themselves as creative consultants for other filmmakers. Directors include: such renowned directors as John Boorman, Neil Jordan, for whom they created the storyboards for Company of Wolves, Richard Lester producing ideas and a title sequence for his Paul McCartney concert film, Get Back, Peter Greenaway for whom they created poster, book covers and an exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival. They also created the storyboards for Absolute Beginners produced by Palace Pictures, and film posters for directors Chris Petit, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Nagisa Oshima, and Channel Four television. Bruce and Coulson worked with Godley and Crème making music videos and created programmes for British television. Credits include: "The Human Face," an arts documentary for the BBC, with Laurie Anderson, nominated for a BAFTA award, and "Club X" a youth music and arts series for Channel 4.
Blackburn Agency. Painting on canvas by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson 2438mm x1219mm
Creative Review Magazine Jim Davies
As Muscle Films and Kruddart, Michael Coulson and Nichola Bruce produce a wide-ranging body of illustrative and film work. The term multi-disciplinary could have been invented especially for this pair of collaborators: their prolific output includes music, design, illustration, scriptwriting, poetry, painting and film making. But we’re certainly not a pair of odd job merchants ,” insists Bruce.
Their main raison d’etre is filmmaking, and most of their other work refers to films, explicitly or obliquely. They both studied film at Middlesex Poly in the late 70s, and see it as suitable melting pot for their talents. Their film projects can take two years to three years to come to fruition, and their paintings, often related to their film project, “keep them going in the meantime”.
Working with others is some thing that excites the team.” Once you’ve worked with someone it’s difficult to work by yourself,” says Coulson. “It’s good to have some else around even if it’s just to tell you what you’re doing is crap. When I work by myself I feel like dragging someone in off the street and saying, “What do you think of this?”
Four American Composers Poster for Peter Greenaway, Channel 4. by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson
Coulson and Bruce often have several paintings on the go at the same time. “We’ll put four or five paintings on the walls, and if you can’t do a bit like a hand or something, you swap over to one of the others,” explains Bruce. They believe in painting quickly and aggressively; part of their inspiration, they say, was born out of punk. “There’s nothing worse than being afraid of the paper,” says Bruce. Their boredom threshold is very low, which explains why the range of their projects is so diverse and their style so eclectic.
A Film for Future Leisure. Painting by Nichola Bruce, Michael Coulson
Despite the variety, the way they work does have a sort of sequential logic. It usually starts with the concept for a film. Notes will be taken, sketches drawn, ideas will start to flow, sketches might develop into storyboards, storyboards into paintings, paintings into scripts, scripts into film. At any of these stages though things might start to get interesting, and a film project could end being a Kruddart (Nichola and Michael’s design company) project or an art project could metamorphose into a film.
Michael Coulson at Muscle Films/ Kruddart's Tabernacle Street Studio
The film work and the illustrative work are independent. Sarah Culshaw at Sharp Practice, which has recently taken on the task of promoting Kruddart, admires their unusual mix of collage and montage; and confirms that “film informs their illustrative work”.
Book covers for Faber Faber illustrated by Michael Coulson
Equally, illustrative work informs their films. Wings of Death is their most successful film project to date. Shown at Cannes in 1985, released as the short accompanying Nightmare on Elm Street and recently aired on Channel Four, the film contains shots that are almost exact replicas of the paintings they did prior to shooting.
They are currently working on three film project. The first is called Year of the Gun, a thriller set in Rome being written by Barrie Keefe (Long Good Friday) and produced by Eric Felner of Initial Films, whose credits include Sid and Nancy. The second is Inheritance of Fear, a horror pic “with depth” in which the mythical past meets the science of the future”. The third project, Albion, based on the book Albion, Albion, by Dick Morland, is an everyday tale of football violence in the 21st century, set in a Britain that has become the 52nd state of America. Ex-NME gunslinger Tony Parsons is lined up to write this one.
They are also working on a long-form video entitled God is Dog (Future Leisure), a satire that analyses the possible leisure activities of the future.
Coulson is the more loquacious of the partners, talking quickly and enthusiastically about their work, pointing out the drawings and paintings around the room to back up his remarks, and running out to retrieve relevant scrapbooks. “We keep virtually everything,” he says . “We might cut it up and use it for something else later.”
Book covers for Faber Faber illustrated by Michael Coulson
Bruce is quieter, occasionally interrupting or correcting Coulson’s running commentary. Coulson usually bows to her better judgement: she admits that they do have rows “but never in public”. They seem to have their respective roles fairly well worked out. Says Coulson, “We’re both quite dominant characters, but if one of us is feeling shitty or worn out , the other one will take over.”
“We have to put our egos away in a box when we’re working together,” adds Bruce, otherwise there’s great friction. But basically, Michael does the high-up bits, and I do the low bits,” a joking reference to the noticeable disparity in height between the two.
Poster for The Draughtsman's Contract, Peter Greenaway, BFI.designed by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson
The piece of artwork they are probably best known for is the poster for The Draughtsman’s Contract, a collage incorporating torn photographs, photocopies, line drawings and ornate calligraphy, full of cryptic clues and riddles that reflect perfectly the atmosphere of sinister nuance that pervades the film. They also produced a powerful poster for Four American Composers, a film Greenaway made for Channel Four.
Book covers for Peter Greenaway, Faber Faber. designed and illustrated by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson
The Greenaway connection continues in their recent book cover illustration for the script of his latest film, The Belly of an Architect. They have also done a poster for the film, but don’t know if the distributor will go for it. “They might want something safer,” says Coulson. Belly is the latest of half a dozen book covers they have produced Faber and Faber, through Pentagram. Pentagram designer Quentin Newark says he was particularly impressed with their cover for a collection of American short stories called Drunk with Love. Their strength he believes, is in the way they use collage: “It’s not straight collage, but inventive collage used in an illustrative way.” Krudd has also produced New Scientist covers, always a showcase for innovative illustration. “We enjoy turning abstract ideas into art,” says Coulson.
Book covers for Faber Faber illustrated by Michael Coulson
THE BODY AS FACTORY: Anatomy of an Image
6 November 2014 Rick Poynor, Visiting Professor in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art, wrote an article in Design Observer magazine about an illustration I had produced with Nichola Bruce in 1979 for New Scientist magazine in London. He liked the image and had put it on his wall many years ago and lost the picture credit. He tracked us down and interviewed us for a piece he was writing about he theme of The Body as Factory.
New Scientist, 5 July 1979. Cover illustration by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson, also known as Kruddart.
The image above is a cover from the British magazine New Scientist, a news weekly aimed at the scientific community and anyone interested in science. It was founded in 1956 and is still going strong. I saved the cover when it appeared in 1979 because I admired the image. I was fascinated by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi (this won’t surprise regular readers) and the cover’s graphic quality and the collage of the man repurposed as an industrial complex reminded me of his screenprints. I liked it enough to frame it and put in on my wall.
Recently, I found the cover again and realized I had no idea who made it — I long ago threw out the rest of the magazine with the image credit. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the New Scientist cover was an important forum for a new generation of British illustrators, during a highly fertile, often radical, though now somewhat overlooked chapter in the discipline’s
history. The magazine’s art editor, Chris Jones, had a catholic eye for talent and commissioned distinctive cover images by artists such as Sue Coe, Russell Mills, Ian Pollock, Peter Kennard, Liz Pyle, Andrzej Klimowski, Bill Sanderson, and Dan Fern. Much of that came later, though, and when I bought the issue I wasn’t following those visual trends. In 1986, I went to an exhibition of New Scientist original cover artwork in London, but the “Beads of Life Unthreaded” image wasn’t included in either the show or the accompanying catalogue.
My best guess for its creator was David Pelham, well known for Penguin Science Fiction book covers, such as Sirius (1973), that bear graphic comparison with the New Scientist image. In an email, Pelham commented on the DNA illustration’s resemblance to Paolozzi’s prints, but confirmed that this powerful image wasn’t his work, though he said he rather wished it were. By then, I had found the answer with Google Books, which has digitized many complete issues of New Scientist. The illustration is by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson of Muscle Films, who created several striking covers for the magazine in those years.
What particularly interested me about Bruce and Coulson’s visual interpretation of DNA, which has hardly dated thanks to its intellectual and graphic cogency, is its treatment of the man’s inner body as both machine and factory. We have been looking at this kind of imagery a lot recently, with the publication, in 2009 and 2013, of two monographs about Fritz Kahn, a long-neglected German doctor, science writer and pioneer of information graphics, who used visual metaphors to elucidate the body’s hidden processes. Kahn’s most famous and unforgettable creation, proliferating across the Internet as I write, is Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace), which exists in two similar versions produced in 1926 and c. 1928.
Fritz Kahn, Der Mensch als Industriepalast, c. 1928
These spectacularly strange yet cozily familiar images must have had great popular impact in their day and other educators of the public in the corporeal mysteries, such as Harold Wheeler, editor ofThe Miracle of Life in the 1940s, used similar factory imagery to portray the “chemical works” of the body “in a form suited to an essentially mechanical age,” as a caption puts it.
Plate from The Miracle of Life, published by Odhams Press, London, edition undated, 1940s
Kahn’s posters were also noticed and appropriated as marvelous and inadvertently surreal art objects by observers in the art world. In a photograph of the Mayor Gallery in London, taken in 1939, the image can be seen in the window of an exhibition of works by the British Surrealists Roland Penrose and Ithell Colquhoun — it appears to have been cut out from its background. In 1951, the artist, designer and writer Barbara Jones (a figure now receiving deserved attention) included The Human Factory, the English version of the poster, in Black Eyes and Lemonade, a trailblazing exhibition devoted to the popular arts held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London.
Exhibition of work by Roland Penrose and Ithell Colquhoun at the Mayor Gallery, London, 1939
Paolozzi is likely to have visited Black Eyes and Lemonade, where he couldn’t have missed Kahn’s poster. In 1965, he included one of Kahn’s industrial palace figures in the screenprint Wittgenstein in New York (below) from the series As is When, one of his most frequently reprinted images. In Paolozzi’s remix, the human factory has become a cybernetic entity fully merged with the technological environment of the city. The same figure reappears, recolorized, in Paolozzi’s Man Holds the Key (1972), a numbered screenprint and lithograph in the Bunk portfolio based on a collage from the early 1950s. In 1971, Kahn’s durable icon found its way onto the paperback cover of Man Modified, a timely study of man/machine interaction by David Fishlock, a science journalist on the Financial Times, though the image isn’t credited to Kahn. Also in 1972, David Pelham, an admirer of Paolozzi, commissioned the artist to create a Penguin cover for Lost in the Funhouse, a collection of metafictional texts by the postmodernist American writer John Barth. Paolozzi’s human factory (borrowed from an unidentified source) modernizes the Kahn-like image with sharper lines and a bright Pop palette, and moves even closer in graphic effect to the laterNew Scientist cover by Muscle Films, even down to the yellow backdrop. According to Pelham’s account in Penguin by Designers, Barth adored it.
Catalogue published by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1977, showing Wittgenstein in New York by Eduardo Paolozzi, 1965
I contacted Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson to ask them about the sources of their image. The duo collaborated as Muscle Films on film projects from 1977 to 1991, as well as image-making and illustration; these commissions were also produced under the name of “Kruddart.”
“Paolozzi was definitely on the radar,” says Bruce. “I had poster prints of his on the wall.” She also mentions Warhol, Oldenberg and Lichtenstein. Coulson remembers Paolozzi as “more of an art school influence” during their time at Hornsey College of Art in London, in the early 1970s. Kahn was still an obscure figure in those days and neither of them knew about him. Later, when they devised the DNA image, their inspirations came from German Dada and collage — Hannah Höch,Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, Herbert Bayer, George Grosz, and Kurt Schwitters — as well as the graphic work of the Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko. In the UK, these figures were touchstones for progressive graphic artists in the punk and post-punk years of the mid- to late 1970s. Another key influence for Bruce and Coulson was the anatomical illustrations ofAndreas Vesalius and his seven-volume study, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body, 1543). “We had a lot of medical dissection books,” recalls Bruce. “Medical posters. Plastic brains with bits that separate out.”
“We were interested in using the body as a metaphor,” says Coulson, “and we created a series of illustrations on the theme of the human head as camera — the resulting image complete with clockwork wind-up mechanism fixed to the side of the head above the ear.”
In Art Meets Science: The Cover Art of New Scientist (1986), Chris Jones recalls working with Bruce and Coulson. “I was thrilled by their enthusiasm . . . Their uninhibited approach was refreshing and again broke another barrier with the often fairly incomprehensible area of the physical sciences.” Muscle Films’ first cover, in February 1979, visualized the discovery of a new particle, and their second, two weeks later, commemorated Einstein’s centenary; “Beads of Life Unthreaded” was the third. Bruce had recently read James D. Watson’s The Double Helix, his controversial autobiographical account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Bruce and Coulson talked to the article’s author, Miranda Robertson, associate editor of Nature, and concluded that they would need to find a graphic analogy for biological information storage. In the emerging digital world, the chips and circuits inside a computer hard drive provided the most apposite metaphor. Later on, illustrators struggling to represent the immaterial for computer magazines would do this kind of imagery to death, but in 1979 it was still fresh and startling.
“To make the illustration, we originally created a looser, less specific image but decided we didn’t like the approach,” recalls Coulson. “For the next attempt we took the head from our film Boolean Procedure’s main character [played by Michael Howley] and degraded it using an old photocopier to give it a machine-like quality and began to incorporate some of the computer chip imagery. We always tried to ensure that the image we created contained real scientific information. To illustrate the concept of the compacting and storing of the miles of genetic information within each cell, we showed how the DNA is wound around a spool and is then able to be unraveled, read and copied. I wanted this section of the illustration to be scientific and have a different quality than either the semi-realistic human head or the industrial design of the computer circuits.”
They chose primaries because they are graphic: three colors for the three letters of DNA. The finished piece is a physical collage, about the same size as the magazine cover, with all the pieces fixed in position by spray mount. The blocks of color are either painted or flat colored paper, with the red letters stenciled onto the yellow surface. The art editor’s use of blue and red for the typography ties everything together, making this a particularly well unified New Scientist cover. In covers by other artists, the illustration was often less well integrated.
If Kahn’s human factory, whatever its inventor’s didactic intentions, is as much about the domination of machinic modes of thinking and being in a mechanical age as it is about the invisible operations of the body, so Bruce and Coulson’s cover is similarly double-coded and ambiguous. Even as the illustration monumentalizes Crick and Watson’s brilliant deciphering of the human operating system, it hints at the human costs of the looming digital future by presenting a body prosthetically colonized and restructured by electronic components. The image stands up so well decades later because it boldly intuited a deep technological and cultural shift, just as it was about to happen, and froze it in a piece of visual journalism with total graphic conviction.
Rick Poynor is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book isUncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design. He is Visiting Professor in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art, London.