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Artist creates famous play structures
February 22, 2014, 05:00 AM By Angela Swartz Daily Journal

Daily Journal file photo
South San Francisco’s Barbara Butler has built residential and public playgrounds since 1987.

Right in the Peninsula’s backyard, South San Francisco artist Barbara Butler builds children’s play structures and her latest project will help all kids — including those with disabilities — play on playgrounds.

Butler, who runs her treehouse and custom play structures business out of a South San Francisco office, began this career in the late ’80s after majoring in political science in college, then pursing writing and painting. In addition to the residential work she does, she also helps with public projects, such as building an Americans with Disabilities Act friendly playground in Palo Alto that’s inclusive to all children.

“I did construction to pay the bills,” she said. “I fell in love. … It combines play, sculpting, woods and the outdoors.”

Originally from upstate New York, Butler moved to San Francisco in 1983 and founded Outer Space Designs, designing and building unique decks and hot tubs. In 1987, singer Bobby McFerrin and his wife requested Butler make a play structure for their two children. This is what really spurred Butler’s career. Since then, she worked with clients like Robert Redford; Will Smith and Jada Pinkett; and Walt Disney Productions. Butler’s Rough & Tumble Outpost play structure was highlighted as the FAO Schwartz “Ultimate Gift” in the 1999 Christmas catalog. A Butler playhouse was also used in the “Bicentennial Man” movie.

“At first people told me, ‘you can’t do that, it’s not a real job,’” said Butler, who lives in San Francisco.

She moved the office for Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc. to the Peninsula 15 years ago during the dot-com bubble. In her San Francisco building, other tenants complained about the noise from her studio.

“I moved to South San Francisco and found a great old warehouse,” Butler said.

Butler does travel a lot. She flies in for design meetings, but builds at the warehouse. Then, the company will fly in for installations, which take about three to five days to complete. She specializes in wood and custom builds.

Fifty percent to 60 percent of her work is residential, while the other part is for public use. Public use includes preschools, parks, developments and affordable housing projects.

One such public project she’s currently working on is the Magical Bridge Playground in Mitchell Park in Palo Alto in conjunction with the city and Friends of the Magical Bridge, a project of Friends of the Palo Alto Parks. The project is for kids of all abilities — including children in wheelchairs — and is ADA compliant. The universal access playground includes ramping systems to enable wheelchairs to travel the entire length of the play structure; smooth rubber surfacing (instead of traditional bark or sand) to be friendly to those with limited mobility; playhouse structure and community stage fully accessible to inspire imaginations; a raised sand play table; and The Quiet Corner to invite people to gather, rest or play chess. Construction should start this summer and finish by the end of August.

“The public ones are really close to my heart,” Butler said. “I get to hit kids of all income brackets and am really shaping their childhood experiences. Magical Bridge is really dear to me. I want to make it super, super fun for kids of all abilities. It’s for everyone to enjoy.”

For more on Butler visit

(650) 344-5200 ext. 105



Tags: butler, francisco, public, really, structure, project,

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