If play is the work of children, then Barbara Butler is a true kid at heart. The San Francisco, CA-based artist/builder is a notable designer to the stars, crafting innovative treehouses and play spaces for families of such A-list celebrities as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, and Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates.
But treehouses weren’t always part of Butler’s portfolio. In the 1980s, she had her own business, Outer Space Designs, specializing in deck and hot tub designs. It wasn’t until 1987 when she was constructing a hillside deck for Bobby McFerrin and his wife Debbie that a new opportunity presented itself.
“Debbie asked if I could build a play structure for their two boys—‘something unique’—and that captured my imagination,” recalls Butler. “I researched by playing like a kid again on play structures all around town late at night and then I poured my heart into designing and building one. Once I finished that project, I was hooked!” She then concentrated her business solely on kids’ play spaces for both indoors and out.
When creating a unique design for individual clients, Butler strives to strike a balance between a distinct play space and one that incorporates common elements. “The challenge is to create a play structure that is both whimsical and beautiful to look at, as well as totally fun for kids to play on for many years,” she says. “Swings and slides are constant favorites for kids of all ages, so I try to fit them into most designs.”
One of Butler’s more recent projects landed her in Southampton, where she was tasked to erect a treehouse in a mere three days, as it was a surprise gift. Designed to be the ideal getaway treehouse for kids that are a bit older, the structure is situated high up in a tree, making getting into it part of the fun. “The big challenge was to balance the clubhouse and the deck in the tree so that it looked like it grew there,” explains Butler. “I didn’t want to overwhelm the tree.”
Having specified a color palette, Butler’s clients requested special signage for the treehouse’s interior pointing to local beaches—a way of personalizing the clubhouse. After visiting the site to get the proper measurements and mull over a design, Butler returned to her South San Francisco workshop where the bulk of the house was assembled. “This let us install in such a short time, even when the tree is at the center of the structure, coming up through the deck right next to the front door,” she says.
Not daunted whatsoever by the environment, Butler adopts a Frank Lloyd Wright-style approach by embracing nature in her designs. “I love the challenge of working with a living tree,” she enthuses. “It has to be a collaboration with the tree limbs and that requires extra patience and creativity.”
It doesn’t hurt that Butler can think like a kid when she steps back to appreciate her own work. “I love introducing kids to the joy of hanging out up in the trees—where I spent a lot of my own childhood,” she reminisces. “Plus, a well-placed treehouse is a delight to everyone who gazes upon it. People come around the corner, look up and cannot resist smiling.”
Photos by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.