Swing sets, jungle gyms, forts and tree houses can be found almost anywhere, including local schoolyards, neighborhood playgrounds, suburban backyards, even the South Lawn of the White House. But few children, the President’s daughters included, have jumped on anything quite like Barbara Butler’s one-of-a-kind play structures.
Ms. Butler, a self-described “play professional,” has spent more than two decades crossing the country, building hundreds of custom, site-specific and artistic play structures. She has catered to dozens of celebrity clients—including actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, Robert Redford, Jada Pinkett Smith and record producer Lou Adler. Her work—carrying a price tag of anywhere from $4,000 to $200,000—has been featured in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and People magazine, among others.
And despite being based in San Francisco, she and her husband, Jeffrey Beal, have built dozens of structures on the East End. “We come here every summer,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “We drive the truck cross-country, and try to do two or three installations in one trip.”
Ms. Butler said she designs, builds and installs, on average, between 30 to 40 structures per year and oversees 10 full-time employees. Her company, Barbara Butler, Artist-Builder Inc., is a thriving enterprise, something Ms. Butler said she couldn’t have imagined when she was a construction worker in the late 1980s.
She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in political science from SUNY Cortland and went on to receive a graduate degree in English from SUNY Binghamton, but with little professional direction, Ms. Butler said she decided to work for two of her brothers who were contractors in Washington, D.C., at the time.
“I started working for my brothers in their construction business to pay the bills,” she said. “I just saw it as making money.”
Butaway to make money turned into a lifelong passion when she and a friend, Robert Forrest, decided to start “Outer Space Designs” in San Francisco, specializing in landscape and backyard design. It was in 1987, when singer/song writer Bobby McFerrin and his wife, Debbie, asked “Outer Space” to create an unusual play structure for their two sons, that Ms. Butler said she found her calling.
“I went around San Francisco, and I played in all of the play structures,” she said with a laugh.
After designing the McFerrin’s’ structure—which included carved, abstract totem poles and brightly colored stains she made from scratch—the child within her was “hooked,” she said.
And despite some initial discouragement from her friends and family (“Everybody said you can’t just do play structures,” she said.), Ms. Butler launched her own full-time business.
After working for several years as a sole proprietor, Ms. Butler was joined by her future husband, Jeffrey, and the two teamed up to build play structures on site. In 1997, the two moved to their first shop and developed a modular building system.
In 1999, Ms. Butler’s sister, Suzanne Butler, joined the team. The two became business partners and co-owners, the business was incorporated and Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc. was born. Today, Ms. Butler and her team primarily create custom swing sets, clubhouses, and her personal favorite, tree houses.
Ms. Butler, Mr. Beal and a crew of six builders are currently working on installing a tree house for a family in Southampton. She estimates she has already built at least 20 tree houses on Long Island.
“Twelve or so years ago, I did my first tree house and really liked it,” she said. “There’s something primordial about tree houses.”
Ms. Butler explained that she enjoys creating her work in partnership with Mother Nature.
“You’re working with these living organisms and they’re incredibly beautiful,” she said. “And there are so many great trees out here on Long Island.”
She said that each tree house she creates is “definitely” custom—she designs the structure to fit not only the family’s requests, but also the natural curvature of the tree.
“You have to be careful not to disturb the tree,” she explained. “You have to make sure it looks better when you’re done with it, not worse.”
This attention to detail translates into a design process that can take anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year, according to Ms. Butler. “It usually takes several visits,” she said. “First, I photograph the tree. Then I talk with the family. I let the kids draw drawings ... They often have very specific requests.”
Ms. Butler said she draws her ideas directly on her photographs of the tree, which helps clients visualize what the finished productwill look like. After the initial visit, she and her clients communicate back-and-forth via e-mail.
Once drawn, she shows her design to an engineer in San Francisco, who ensures that the structure will be sound and secure. Afterward, she sends clients photographs, drawings and wood samples, so together they can select themes, color schemes and other details.
Miyoung Lee, an East Hampton resident who commissioned Ms. Butler to build a tree fort for her children several years ago, likened the process to designing a high-performance sports car. She and her husband, Neil Simpkins, won the opportunity to work with Ms. Butler at a fund-raiser for their child’s nursery school in Manhattan.
“I had never even heard of Barbara and her company prior to the auction event,” Ms. Lee said. “However, once I started to do research on the company, I realized we had won the ‘Rolls Royce’ of tree houses.”
Ms. Lee described the finished product, a nautical, boat-shaped tree house as “beautiful in many ways.”
“The details are amazing, how well things are constructed, how safe they function and how well they last,” she said. “The entire piece blends in so nicely with its surroundings. It is a pleasure to look down on it from our bedroom.”
She reported that her children love the structure, too. “They use it often to this day, especially when new friends come around for the first time to see it,” Ms. Lee said.
According to Ms. Butler, she couldn’t ask for anything more than the career she has developed.
“I’ve been devoted to it for 15 years,” she said. “To me, they’re my art. I just love making things.”
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