Her Work is All About Play
San Francisco Chronicle
When she was growing up, Barbara Butler never had to worry about finding someone to play with. She had seven brothers and sisters, and her mother ran a nursery school.
"The spirit of play was pretty strong in our family," she says with a laugh.
But when she and her sister played with Barbies, she recalls, "I would spend all my time making the Barbie mansion then never wanted to play with the dolls."
Now the San Francisco designer creates play structures that bring out the spirit of fun in other people. Her imaginative edifices range from storybook cottages to romantic castles, spirited pirate ships and even a lifesize lighthouse.
Word of mouth has brought her some famous clients, including Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, who commissioned her to build a two-towered structure with a swinging bridge and wraparound ramp. Singer Bobby McFerrin hired her to build a two-story fort with carved totem poles, a tire swing and a rope ladder. Robert Redford asked her to create a "global village" play area for his Sundance resort.
Butler built a 17-foot lighthouse in Malibu for record producer Lou Adler. And she recently finished installing a 18-foot-tall lookout tower for "Bicentennial Man," a Walt Disney movie starting Robin Williams that is currently being filmed in Woodside.
The largest playhouse she's built is called the "Connecticut Castle." Created for a multimillionaire's two young sons in Litchfield, Conn., it includes three towers, two bridges, a mad scientist's chamber, rockclimbing wall, hand-carved gargoyles and a jail with a secret escape tunnel. The boys can descend on a 36-foot-long slide that passes under the main tower or on a 100-foot zip-line cable that runs from the main tower into the woods.
Although that large castle cost $70.000, Butler's custom play structures start at $14,000. And she recently began offering four playhouses by mail order at more reasonable prices, along with undersize furniture.
At the upper end of her mail-order collection are her "Cape Codder" and "Robin Hood Fort."
The "Cape Codder" has three levels, a cedar shingle roof and a small balcony. It measures 4 by 6 by 10 1/2 feet and costs $8,500.
The two-level "Robin Hood Fort" includes a climbing wall, a rope ladder, a mad scientist's panel, a working flagpole and a small zip-line cable ride. It measures 4 1/2 by 10 1/2 by 13 feet and is priced at $9,500. Prices range from $2,395 to $3,695 for her "Storybook Playhouse" and "Garden Playhouse," which are decorated with imaginative carvings of animals, flowers, planets and stars. Both are available in three sizes: small (4 by 4 by 7 feet), medium (4 1/2 by, 4 1/2 by 8 feet) and large (5 1/2 by 5 1/2 by 9 feet).
Like her other pieces, the small playhouses are handcrafted and cheerily painted in bright colors. She often accommodates requests to make an animal look like a favorite pet.
To decorate the inside of her playhouses, Butler offers whimsical painted furniture: a small-proportioned table with two chairs for $395 anda hutch for $495.
What more could a kid desire? It's hard to imagine. Whatever a child - or adult - may fancy, Butler is willing to build. Her favorite assignment, she says, is "anything new that anyone dreams up."
FUN SPOT: Butler's "Robin Hood Fort," with a ciimbing wall, a rope ladder, a working flagpole and more, costs $9,500.
STEP ON IN: Barbara Butler's "Cape Codder" playhouse features three levels, a cedar shingle roof and a small balcony for $8,500.
FOR THEINTERIOR: Butler's painted furniture includes a small table with two chairs for $395 and a hutch for $495.