Careers and Ed: Working for play

The art and architecture of building forts for a living
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culture@sfbg.com

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 lighthouses 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 Noe Valley backyard that 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 the 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 Gabriella is the resident bookkeeper. With this team behind her, she's now building 60 custom residential commissions a year, plus two or three public-use projects.

Originally, Butler and crew built everything from scratch and on-site. 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 cannon, 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 illusion and disorientation, which are key to kids."

Next the family chooses one of 60 shades of nontoxic stain to be used on the structure.

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