Working for Play
San Francisco Bay Guardian
Photo of Tree Top Inn - under construction
Who says you have to leave the days of building forts and wearing play clothes behind just because it’s time to “grow up” and get a “real job”? Not Barbara Butler, play professional.
The Bay Area artist makes her living building fanciful castles, pirate ships, and tree houses for kids all over the world. And she says her work is just as much fun for her as the results are for her clients. Plus: her office wear? Faded jeans, hiking boots and a purple T-shirt that says, “Go outside.”
So how exactly does someone end up designing miniature light houses and two-story play sets as a career?
Butler’s fascination with the architecture of play began during her “uproariously fun” childhood in Watertown, New York, where she lived in an eccentric turn-of-the-century house complete with speaking tube, secret hiding places, and seven brothers and sisters (she’s number six) with whom to explore.
Much later her two contractor brothers introduced her to the construction trade. And in 1986 in
San Francisco she and a friend founded Outer Space Design, a business specializing in creative landscaping and deck design. But it wasn’t until Bobby McFerrin (of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fame) commissioned her to build a unique playhouse in his
Butler’s true path became clear.
Butler so enjoyed creating a space for McFerrin’s two children—an endeavor that combined her love of sculpture, building, color, play, and the outdoors—that she decided to do it for a living.
“Everyone said that I was crazy thinking I could turn this into a real business,” she says.
But with the help of her family, she has indeed transformed the art of play into a profitable endeavor. Her sister Suzanne is a company partner and business manager. Her husband, Jeff, whom she met on the job, coordinates materials, deliveries, and installations. Her brother James does all the drafting, and her niece Gabrielle is the resident bookkeeper. With this team behind her, she’s now building 60 custom residential commissions a year, plus two or three public-uses projects.
Butler and crew built everything from scratch and onsite. But they’ve since streamlined the process.
Butler now has several standard designs for castles, forts, and theaters, as well as play features such as secret escape hatches, jailhouses, two kinds of slides, fire poles, zip lines, climbing walls, and a clubhouse with a mail slot and a who-goes-there peephole. She also has a “template wall”, which is filled with irregular shapes and cutouts for achieving her trademark “wicky –wack” look. “Carpenters and builders are great at making right angles—but it drives me crazy,” she says. The modular redwood and metal structures are assembled by Butler’s team in her 9,000-square-foot
South San Francisco studio before being broken down and shipped in flat panel packs all over the world.
The process starts when
Butler meets with her pint-size clients (and their generous parents). She likes the experience to be fun from start to finish, so initial meetings tend to be lively and exciting, with everyone talking at once. “No idea is too wild or crazy at this point,” she says.
Families discuss whether they’d like extras such as a drop table and bench, a double-barrel rotating water canon, a ship’s wheel, a pulley bucket, a secret safe, or a flagpole with three different flags. One of
Butler’s favorites is a wiggly bridge with boards at off angles so you feel like you could fall through (even though you can’t). “It takes some nerve to walk across,” she says. “A lot of my designs are about creating illusions and disorientation, which are key to kids.”
Next the family chooses one of 60 shades of nontoxic stain to be used on the structure. And finally
Butler takes a closer look at the space and budget and begins to prioritize. “It’s a very collaborative process,” she says.
Butler also keeps in mind that kids won’t stay forever. She encourages the client to consider a structure with an enclosed clubhouse, for when kids outgrow the slides and swings and enter the “hangout” stage. She’s also designed the playhouses to be bolted into the ground for easy installation and— when the kids are gone and the parents want to reclaim their backyard—removal. (Though
Butler’s team refurbishes, sells, and delivers used play structures to recipients on a long waiting list, most of the playhouses are passed from generation to generation.)
Of course, not all of
Butler’s structures are just for kids. She recently built a tree house 18 feet off the ground in Santa Barbara, a commission from a grandfather who confessed to
Butler that while it was for his grandkids, he also wanted to be able to read his newspaper up there. “The whole time I was designing, I had this image of an overstuffed chair in the corner,”
And as a way of making sure that every structure is as safe as possible,
Butler builds according to the same code she once used for decks. “I always say that whatever I build should be able to handle a bunch of drunk adults at night,”
Butler says. Still, her real joy is in making autonomous, safe play spaces that kids can call their own. “It’s amazing how little interest I have in building adult structures,” she says, “If they wanted things like good lookouts and secret passageways, I might consider it.”