There are certain things in life that manage to make even the most adult of us feel like a kid again, ushering us into a world where laughing, exploring and playing King of the Mountain are all acceptable forms of amusement. Barbara Butler not only discovered what brings out the best in children and adults alike, she also made it into a thriving business that Hollywood has come to love.
Her secret? Butler can capture a fantasy world and fashion it into life with wood and brightly colored paint. And don't assume a dream can be too complicated or extreme. She has built a jail and pirate ship complete with swinging bridge. And a castle with towers, a 36-foot slide and a mad scientist's chamber, all accented with rock climbing walls and hand-carved gargoyles. Whatever your dream play structure is, Butler can build it in your very own backyard.
From Construction to Celebrity
Butler's foray into castles, ships and tree houses all began rather unassumingly while doing construction work. In 1983 Butler moved to San Francisco and helped found Outer Space Designs, designing and building unique decks, hot tubs and surrounds. "I started doing construction to just pay the bills while working in my free time as a fine arts painter," Butler says. "I saw them as two separate worlds." In 1987 those worlds collided when singer Bobby McFerrin and his wife, Debbie, requested a play structure for their two children in addition to Butler's other work. "Debbie asked for a play structure, but she said most sets were so boring, so she wanted something extraordinary," Butler says.
Faced with this daunting challenge, Butler went around San Francisco and played on all the play sets she could find, noting what really got imaginations and bodies active. She took the best elements of what she found and combined them with her own thoughts on play. What she found in designing her first custom structure was that it offered the best of both her worlds. "It really combined all the things I love: construction, painting, sculpture, play and children," says Butler. "I was really hooked." The new job wasn't all child's play, though. "It was a brutal learning curve because it required different tools and thoughts about child safety," she says. "At first, I even had trouble finding colorful stains."
A Family Business
After her success with the McFerrin play set, Butler was asked by another client to build a playground tailored to their yard and specific needs. Soon, the game was on, and Butler shifted the emphasis of her construction company into designing and manufacturing the dreams of children and adults. Now alongside her husband, brothers and sisters, Butler has designed and constructed close to 300 custom play structures, a number of which are owned by a few names you may recognize. Besides her initial work with Bobby McFerrin, she also did a job for Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates at their summer home in upstate New York, made a lighthouse in Malibu for Lou Adler and was commissioned by Robert Redford to design a global-village play area and a children's theater for the Sundance Institute in Utah.
Butler's prestigious client list also includes Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Jasmine Guy and Walt Disney Productions. A playhouse created by Butler was used in the Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man. Even Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, have a playhouse for their children, complete with wild animals carved into the woodwork. A carved lion guards the front door in a design worthy of one of the kings of Hollywood.
"Celebrities are really fun," Butler says of her impressive clientele. "They are creative people, also, and it's very much a collaborative thing. I want the whole process to be fun – kids are involved, as are their parents, and they are all designing this together and I'm their guide; actors are very used to that. It's very fun."
What is intriguing is that in a custom-made creation everyone has a voice, even if it is coming from a 3-year-old. Butler says that children often have some of the better ideas of capturing a flight of fancy and making it into a reality. That's not to say Butler doesn't keep in mind the fully-grown kids, however. All her structures are made to comfortably support children as well as adults. "I always make my structures strong enough," Butler says. "Often, playgrounds are not strong enough for adults to play on. I think that's really a fun new area – having parents out there playing with the kids. That way, everyone is going to those imaginative places."
Designs are made to work in all seasons and for years' worth of time so that they can grow with children. Some of the more popular additions include 100-foot zip lines, water canons and firefighters' poles. An absolute must is the secret escape route out of jails or other buildings.
Butler also makes indoor and outdoor furniture, all designed, built, carved and stained at her studio in San Francisco. Furniture projects include beds, armoires, dining tables, coffee tables, desks, thrones, cradles, blanket chests and love seats.
But her biggest joy remains watching as little ones discover their new wonderland for the first time. "It's great! They are so excited when they get to play on it. As soon as you bring out any play equipment, it's hard to get the job done because they try to play while we set it up. I love getting to go to the first party and watch the kids run in loops."
Butler designs her play structures to encourage loops of movement and running in small spaces, enabling children to access their house from a number of different spots, so there is always a new way to play. Butler's creations encourage physical activity but also exercise the imagination as well. She manages to make the imagined possible, but capturing a fantasy has never been cheap, and the custom-designed structures can range in the tens of thousands. Still, just looking at one of Butler's creations makes even the most stoic and mature ache with a small resonating voice that says, "Let's go play." It's hard to say no when so many dream worlds have magically taken shape.High Marks From Parents
Marc and Lucy Schneidman wanted to find a swing set for their twin 4 1/2-year-old girls. Lucy found a manufactured swing set complete with tent, but they found their yard wasn't fit for an average playground. "Our yard has a pretty steep slope and a hill, so it was going to be really, really expensive for that swing set to work on our hill because we'd have to put all our money into making the hill level, which was ridiculous," Lucy says.
Since regular play areas weren't going to work, Marc hit the Internet and discovered Butler's Web site, barbarabutler.com. The family was delighted by the pictures of her past creations and called her in to tackle their own challenge. Butler worked with a landscape architect to figure out how to handle the difficult terrain. The architect built support walls, and the freeform thinking began. With no set plan, short of a budget, Butler asked the girls what they wanted in their dream playground. "They picked out a lot of the stuff they wanted," Lucy says. "Since they love acting and putting on shows and dressing up, we included a stage and a curtain."
The end result was a source of wonderment to all involved – a play area incorporated into the hillside and decorated with the local flora. The girls love the new addition, as do Mom and Dad. "All they want to do is play," Lucy says, laughing. "I just think it's a great place for them to have make-believe play, and it really encourages their imaginative process." Lucy says it is an investment that will endure for years, and grow with her girls. The fact that it can be fun for grown-ups, too, doesn't hurt any either. "There are areas for people to sit and hang out and play with the girls," Lucy says. "My mom even went down the slide, and she's 70, and she can climb around on everything. People are amazed when they see it."
A final bonus is that the family doesn't have to trek to nearby parks, because the girls would rather play in their own yard. And the neighborhood kids have definitely noticed – most of the girls' friends prefer to play at their house. "It was definitely worth it," Lucy says. "We are totally happy we did it."