Test Lab: Colorcalm’s “By Design” Ambient DVD

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Product: Colorcalm’s “By Design” DVD
Designer: Colorcalm with John Maeda, Irma Boom & Peter Saville
Price: $19.99 (at Conran & online)

Rating: Recommend (by 6 to 4)

Many thanks to our newest group of test lab readers – Randall, NP, Devyn, Marie, Nichole, KS, Braulio, Debbie & Enrique – who did a great job reviewing the latest ambient media DVD from Colorcalm.

Interestingly, there was a strong split in the group and very little waffling. Those who gave it the thumbs up, were enthusiastic and found it “a great backdrop” to have on around their house. Those that gave it the thumbs down, didn’t find the videos “engaging” and thought the music reminded them of a “dentist’s office.” For most, this is a fun, new media addition to their household, and it gets a “recommend” from our team. However, if you expect a lot from this new media, you may still be disappointed.

There was agreement, however, on three points. One, that the graphics were better than the music, that Irma Boom’s piece was the most engaging and that the DVD itself needed a better instruction guide for figuring out how to get around the tracks.

Our opinion? Colorcalm has made great strides since their last DVD, and while they aren’t there yet, the reviews are getting better. By continuing to bring in world class talent, combining it with more customizability and creating more choices for sound and image Colorcalm should hit the bullseye soon.

All Reader Reviews Below (postive and then negative)

Marie – thumbs up

Would you recommend it to a friend? Yes, Definitely! (Actually, I already have…)

Why? The ColorCalm CD is so multi-facetedl! As I watched it, I thought “This would be great for ambiance at a party (especially in today’s big TV in the living room world), it could work in a bar/lounge, great for students to study to, even for parents to use with babies/young children…my list went on and on! In my own home, the TV is a little big for the room and I find that it looks awkward to have it off during parties, yet I loathe to have it on and have people focus on a movie or …god forbid…a sporting event. This CD allows for you to admit that the TV is there, but now it has a higher and more sophisticated purpose.

Favorite track? Favorite to watch was Art Barcodes (with NO CAPTIONS!), Favorite music was Food Coloring

2-3 specific pros?
-The tracks will each keep repeating, so you can leave it on for a long time without worrying about (I had Art Barcodes on for about two hours without even realizing it was on a loop!)
-The ability to just watch the tracks without the music – real music lovers might enjoy creating their own soundtracks to go along with
-The “Random” feature is a really nice option

2-3 specific cons?
-“Playlist” should really be the main menu. And it’s not very intuitive as to why to select Playlist. However, in that menu they provide the only way to see the color scenes with no captions. My main con to this was going to be that the captions (especially in Art Barcodes where you have to turn your head to read them) were SO distracting. But that became less of a con after I found the option to turn them off.

-The guide does a great job of telling you about the artists and musicians, but not about the actual CD! It would be nice to know a few things about the functions instead of just figuring them out as you go along. i.e. I didn’t know that the tracks looped and that the captions could be turned off.

-The general concept of the ColorCalm is a little vague and hard to understand. I’m left with very little understand of who the actual target audience is for this product.

Nichole – thumbs up

Would you recommend it to a friend?
Yes-assuming a friend looking at buying this type of DVD would already have an appreciation for art and design.

I like the idea of exploring the TV as alternative way to show and appreciate art and design. I like that a TV can have a use that adds interest, color and ambiance to a living space. I think the creators have hit on an excellent idea as many homes now have flat panel TV and have the ability to show this type of presentation.

Favorite track?
Music-New order track on Color Wheel by Peter Saville, but was my least favorite image presentation.
Visual-Art Barcodes

2-3 specific pros?
1. Visually a great use for a flat HD TV and TV in general.
2. Makes TV a piece of ambient art.

2-3 specific cons?
1. Only one music track option, and if you happen to not like that given music I think you are less likely to view that particular presentation. I really thought the music for the first presentation was something you would hear in a dentist office or an insurance office. Yet I liked the visual part of the presentation so I would most likely view it without music and with my own playing gin the background.

2. Limited number of presentations. Really only 3 total with some variation on these same three. For the price I would expect at least 5-10 different presentations.

Devyn – thumbs up

Recommend it?
The overall response was one of interest, and it made for a nice backdrop to our simple “hanging out with a cocktail” evening.

My favorite track was Irma Boom with Michael Nyman, the evolving ‘bar code’ was actually engaging to watch. The music was total chillout, and soothing.

Make’s a great backdrop, not commandeering too much attention
Music very chill.
Pretty patterns (Irma’s and Johns)

John Maeda’s piece was too short, it repeated just as we were getting into it. Peter Saville’s piece was too much about being background, causing it to be easily forgotten. New Order, while being a great piece, didn’t really groove so well with the piano on other pieces.

KS – thumbs up

Would you recommend it to a friend?

Colorcalm is remarkably true to its title. If you are looking for high-octane, seat-of-your-pants excitement, buy the latest x-box. Colorcalm is all ambient all the time. Yes, the music can veer perilously close to easy listening; this is especially true with the music of Michael Nyman and Ryuichi Sakamoto. But in each case, the digital art (by Irma Boom and John Maeda, respectively) tethers the music so that it works with the piece as a whole. Art Barcodes and Food Coloring are abstract digital art of the highest order. Their music is a nice subtext, but largely irrelevant – we could see these pieces playing on a screen with a variety of music playing in the background, or even no music at all. This is not the case with the third piece, Color Wheel, but that could be because the graphics here (a barely perceptible change that still manages to span the color spectrum) are so diffuse. Plus, we love us some New Order. Yet all the pieces share certain characteristics. Think minor keys and soothing yet intense colors – a mellow, trancelike, soft bit of a down. Bottom line: Colorcalm can be enjoyed running in the background at a low-key party, during a make-out session or, conversely, getting over your latest breakup.

Favorite track?
For music: New Order/Terranova. For art: the Barcodes, with the sidebars telling you what art pieces they were taken from. A fascinating deconstruction, and an excellent snap lesson in the changing use of color in art through the ages.

2-3 specific pros?
Great conversation piece. Everyone who saw it was fascinated, even my brother, who runs screaming from anything remotely “modern”.

The art does not tire with repeat viewing. Art Barcodes and Food Coloring, in particular, are two pieces that we would happily have paid money to see in a museum. Being able to have it on hand at home is a nice treat.

2-3 specific cons?
The majority of the music can be a bit twee, especially to male ears.
The DVD itself is not the most user-friendly thing on the planet

Enrique – Thumbs up

The “by Design” DVD transforms the cumbersome big-screen television from eyesore to design element. It’s comprised of three sections, each featuring a different visual/musical collaboration. The first is “Art Barcodes” by graphic designer Irma Bloom, featuring music by Michael Nyman. A visually stunning piece, it evokes a few dozen visual works of art (by artists such as Vermeer, da Vinci, Mondrian, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, etc.) by reducing them to their basic color palettes, and then rendering the colors as vertical barcode lines. The onscreen image transitions from one “work” to the next by gradually shifting the hue and width of the colored stripes. Once the transition is complete, the completed representative “work” is held for several beats before the next transition begins. It’s seamless visual piece. The chapter can be run with or without on-screen text identifying the original artwork used as inspiration. (It’s fun to run the chapter with the text to see how Bloom interprets each artwork.) Though I’m not a fan of Michael Nyman, I found that his accompanying musical piece worked well with the visual to create a calming effect.

The second section is “Food Coloring” by designer/artist/computer-scientist John Maeda, which features a solo piano piece by Ryuichi Sakamoto. This is the least successful piece for me since the visual element is a bit too kinetic for the spare instrumentation of the music. As much as I love Sakamoto’s film scores, this composition doesn’t work well with Maeda’s energetic visuals and transitions. I’ve found by that “Food Coloring” worked best when I switched off the Sakamoto music and replaced it with other more uptempo musical choices. And though the visuals are dynamic and striking, they seemed to lack cohesion or a unifying element (other than the thematic link that images were derived from food in a refrigerator).

The third section entitled “Colour Wheel” by influential British graphic designer Peter Saville and featuring Terranova’s remix/re-working of a New Order instrumental track is the best realized stand-alone piece of the three. Saville’s reduction of the visual element into single fields of color that transition one into the next repurposes the technological function of the television. It seemingly reduces the TV to its most basic function as a simple light box. I tried running the piece accompanied by other types of music, and found that Saville’s visual worked best with the electronic ambience of the New Order/Terranova collaboration.

Of the 3 pieces, “Art Barcodes” was my favorite because it didn’t command too much of your attention but still managed to be kinetic and visually interesting, making it the perfect big-screen ambience to run during a cocktail or dinner party. And just about any kind of music could successfully accompany these barcode visuals, regardless of tempo. As a whole, I plan to get a lot of mileage out of the “by Design” DVD and highly recommend it.

Braulio – thumbs down

Would you recommend it to a friend?

Unless you have a large-screen TV — or at least one in plain view of a large room or series of rooms — the dvd is really better suited to a retail or hospitality space.

Favorite track?
The John Maeda/Ryuichi Sakamoto track.

2-3 specific pros?
The Irma Boom piece, “Art Barcodes,” grows more compelling with repeated viewings. (b) The John Maeda/Ryuichi Sakamoto track is the best union of visuals and music.

2-3 specific cons?
The disparity in video lengths. The Irma Boom “Art Barcodes” piece comprises four tracks (of equal length) that run about 95 minutes of a total 140. The John Maeda “Food Coloring” piece is about five minutes long and loops twice. And the Peter Saville “Colour Wheel” and “Elegia Blue to Red” tracks are each about 15 minutes long. (b) The music on the dvd is ultimately of little value: The two Michael Nyman tracks used in the Irma Boom piece (“Debbie” and “If”) are short enough that they are repeated twice within a single track — and they wear out their welcome very quickly. Also, how many times can you hear the full length version of “Elegia”? I think that, in the end, most viewers will provide their own background music when they put the dvd in ,,, if the play any music at all. (c) Although there is a random feature — which, given how much of the dvd is taken up by the Irma Boom tracks, doesn’t make much sense — as well as a way to program a playlist, there isn’t a loop option, in case you want a particular track, or the whole thing, to play on and on.

Debbie – thumbs down

I was in dire need of colorcalm. My giant plasma has taken over my living room/kitchen and my new upstairs neighbor is a bedroom dj who likes to start spinning at 1:30 am. I had no sleep, work stress and now my smoke alarm screamed as I was heated up leftovers and headed to the couch. Colorcalm had its work cut out for it.

I read the pamplet as I started watching the dvd and was really impressed with the talent they had assembled and their lofty artistic goals. Unfortunately I don’t think the works met those goals. The videos are not engaging and the Michael Nyman and Ryuichi Sakamoto soundtracks sound like dentist room music. I really liked the New Order compositions. It is a matter of taste, I know, but our friends confirmed that some of the music was awful and made me mute those tracks.

As for the visuals, the best track is Irma Bloom’s stripes. They were pretty and kind of look like a Pottery Barn rug. The color combinations are based on different famous paintings. I wish that the captions were not tiny and sideways on the screen. If they were readable the piece would be a lot more thought provoking.

The John Maeda videos seemed amateurish and the transitions were jarring. The Peter Saville works were calming and also extremely boring, even when we weren’t focusing on them, like giant pantone chips on the TV. However, I liked how the DVD bathed the room in different shades of light when the other lights in the room were off.

Overall I really expected something more beautiful, hypnotic and transformative from these artists than a screen turning different colors including jarring shades of neon green and pink or sperm like spaghetti flying across the screen.

NP – thumbs down

played the Colorcalm:by Design DVD in two locations: as background in my classroom at Parsons School of Design, where I teach animation, and in my living room at home, where I just installed a new 2,000-lumen projector. I really like the idea of the video screen/projection as a source of ambient color and background art, like fine art you’d hang on your wall but with its own glow and the added dimension of time. I appreciate being sent the DVD and the booklet that came with it, it was very kind. So I’m sorry about what comes next.

Irma Boom’s “Art Barcodes” are arguably the best of the three artist/concept sections. I viewed them under the DVD’s “play all” settings, which defaults to a “with captions” version. The designs are nicely paced and strike the right balance between neutrality and motion, with vertical lines dissolving into different colors. But then up pop the captions: sideways-written text, informing us of the famous work of art from which Boom derived the color palette, the name of the famous artist who originally painted it, and the name of the famous museum or collection in which the famous painting currently hangs. The effect is distracting and pretentious, and ruins the mood of an otherwise fine piece. However, if you navigate the DVD to just Boom’s work, you can play the section without captions. Then you’ll have a nice moving wallpaper of shifting vertical lines. Be sure to turn off the sound too, which to my ear clashes mightily with the visuals.

Next there was “Food Coloring” by John Maeda. I liked the music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which was calm and pleasant. However, the graphics this time were far too kinetic for the content. The degree of movement was distracting – fizzling pixels and fast-moving blobs. Movement draws the eye, and when the eye is drawn it deserves to find something meaningful. Works with that much movement are far too distracting to be called “ambient design;” instead they enter the realm of “experimental animation.” Fortunately (but not for Colorcalm’s affiliates), there’s much better experimental animation out there. Unfortunately, “Food Coloring” is just computer-y abstract shapes and patterns buzzing around, not particularly artfully done. Once again, the music and images clashed – this time the music was too slow for the imagery. If the animation were slowed way down and edited thoughtfully, then it might cut the mustard as “ambient design.” As is, it’s just a weak animated film.

Finally, I saw “Color Wheel” by Peter Saville, with music by New Order. I like New Order, particularly the songs here. The accompanying visuals are about as non-kinetic as conceivable. They consist of…a blank screen. But a colored blank screen. A colored blank screen that shifts a few degrees on the spectrum oh, every ten minutes or so. You can fast-forward this puppy at 32x and still hardly notice anything changing. Which, according the embarrassingly pretentious pamphlet that accompanies the DVD, is the artist’s intention:

“You should be able to be on the phone, looking out the window, having a shower, packing your suitcase, and there’s something in the corner, gently shifting….Merely an existence on the TV screen, in a hotel room anywhere, I don’t want it to attract my attention. I don’t want to watch it. I just like the idea of it being there.”

Saville has designed a way for a TV to “just be there” while continually sucking up excessive electricity. In order to not pay any attention to the TV, the user surely can’t be thinking about how they should turn it off when they go out – that would be too distracting. Perhaps the servants will turn it off? Without any serious consideration of the consequences of its use, “Color Wheel” is the epitome of bad design. There are many ways for a television set to “just be there” that don’t consume watts like an active cathode ray tube. Nonetheless, this achievement required not just the efforts of Saville, but also “the motion graphics designers Spin who would execute the sequence”, an additional color specialist and, to lend more of the false authority that runs through the entire project, a deceased Italian Master:

“Saville’s collaborator artist Anna Blessman, used the work of Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo. The Pantone ‘palette’ she amassed, drawn principally from Pontormo’s Deposition from the Cross (1525-28) was developed into a cycle of colourfields….”

In the end, the most impressive achievement of Colorcalm:by Design is not the DVD itself, but the highly developed bullshit that surrounds it. In this regard, its creators are true artists.

Randall – thumbs down

I would not recommend it to a friend.

I wouldn’t recommend it probably because the target audience and usage for this seems very limited. It’s certainly not something you could sit and watch for an hour. Unless your friends were interested in design, I don’t think they would find enough in this DVD to hold their attention. It does seem good for a low-key get together where you are trying to set a subdued but funky tone, or for a personal spa getaway (it reminds me of the music at a spa when you get a massage, and the images that would go along with that).

Favorite track is Food Coloring. It has the best combination of music and images. It feels like watching the celluar images of some life form under a microscope combined with introspective music to ponder the origins of life. Or something like that anyway.

2-3 pros
Great mood-setting music; I watched this on a cold, wintry day here in the Midwest, and the images were warm but the music reminded me of the more melancholy state out my window.

The images and sounds are soothing.

2-3 cons
I can’t see myself reaching to pop this into the DVD player very often; doesn’t captivate you for very long before you’re ready to switch to the next track

Not broad enough appeal; my wife watched this with me for 3 minutes before she declared herself bored and sleepy.