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Design Notes

Creativity That Is All in Good Fun

Modular play structures and colorful furniture from an architect, and for speed fans, a zippy remote-control car will keep the wheels rolling


Playing is work for Barbara Butler. The San Francisco architect has been making climbable outdoor structures and whimsical kids' furniture since 1987, long before her young clients were born.

Walt Disney Productions used her celestial-motif basketball hoop in "Bicentennial Man," Robert Redford tapped her to create a children's theater for the Sundance Institute in Utah, and her twisted wood throne was displayed at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach. But her favorite seal of approval comes from kids.

When they blast a water cannon from the top of a fort, bounce on an earthquaky platform mounted on car springs or tunnel through escape doors into secret hiding places, she knows she's reached their endless imagination.

That's why she sits down with them--and, of course, their parents, who are paying thousands of dollars for her work--before settling on a design. Together, they make a wish list and fill up sketch pads with colored-pencil drawings of what could be. Some of her young partners' concepts aren't practical. Nixed are ziplines--overhead ropes with gliding handles--that fly them into tight spots without enough landing room. But ideas that free them to play-act in castles, pirate ships and jails are good to go.

The modular structures can grow along with their owners by adding towers, bridges and roofs.

And learning comes with the lollygagging. "We use red and other colored stains to highlight structural elements like support beams to show how things are built," Butler says.

Her wood furniture has wavy edges and carved images. Trains, planes and UFOs cover the pine Zephyr trundle bed. An ash table has relief carvings of fish, and a locking safe has its combination hidden underneath a sliding shield.

There's a one-year wait for Butler's furniture and six months for the play structures, but don't fret yet about getting one sooner: A garden playhouse with tulips on the front door that would sell for $4,600 will be auctioned off at the Caring for Children and Families with AIDS fund-raiser on Oct. 13 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.

For more information, call (415) 864-6840; www.barbara

Tricked-Out Turbos

Competing for attention among the vintage wheels at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is a zippy upstart: a mini remote-control racer with more customizable parts than a Barris Kustom car.

The ZipZaps, introduced by RadioShack on Wednesday at the museum, are modeled after the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford SVT Mustang Cobra and Honda Civic coupe.

But they can be modified on the outside and under the hood. Gold hubcaps, rear air foils and suspension bars snap on, and engines can be turbocharged to 21,500 rpm.

The car is 2 1/2 inches long, roughly the size of Bit Chargers and Micro-sizers. The plastic body is hand-painted and detailed down to its teeny windshield wiper blades. It has a built-in Ni-MH rechargeable battery; the wireless controller-charger is powered by two AAA batteries. Connect the car to the charger, wait 60 seconds and you're off ... for another five minutes of zooming. The controller can maneuver the ZipZaps in six directions.

The basic kit with a car, controller-charger and trading card is $20. Upgrades and an obstacle course are $5 to $10 more. For more information, (800) 843-7422;

Go Retro

Those who appreciate flashbacks, hold on to your handlebars: Kronan Cycle of Stockholm is finally sending its classic one-speed bike to our shores 50 years after it was designed. New parts and streamlined production methods carefully duplicate the original style, which was used by the Swedish army during World War II.

Urban commutes may be more enjoyable astride a steel-framed bicycle with wide balloon tires and a spring-cushioned saddle. Other practical features include fenders and chain guards that protect pants from roadside splatter and grabby chain links, a rack that secures a grocery bag or briefcase behind the seat, and generator-powered lights in the front and back to illuminate your comings and goings. For fun, there's a cast-aluminum license plate to identify the coaster as yours, and, yes, there's a bell.

The bike--painted in black, red, orange, green, silver or cream--costs $350 and takes five weeks to ring at your door. For more information, call (866) 465-7662 or visit www.kronan

Janet Eastman can be reached at

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