Diane von Furstenberg’s 22-year-old granddaughter is recreating her summer camp memories as the new owner of artsy Buck’s Rock camp.
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend was a camper. So was actress Paz de la Huerta. Back in the day, Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and feminist author Erica Jong bunked in the wooded 118 acres in the hills of Litchfield County.
Today, the 80-year-old Buck’s Rock Performing & Creative Arts Camp in New Milford, CT—an educational sleepaway camp originally founded by Austrian immigrants and students of Maria Montessori—is reaching back to its roots, and re-imagining a summer paradise where kids aged 10–17 are free to explore, on their own schedule, their artistic passions.
“Buck’s Rock changed my life,” says owner Antonia Steinberg, a Rhode Island School of Design alum and former Buck’s Rocker herself. She’s also familiar with the area: She spends time with her family at her grandmother Diane von Furstenberg’s nearby estate, Cloudwalk Farm, which the fashion icon has owned since her twenties (and where she’s reportedly expressed her intention to be buried).
Other neighbors in this discreet corner of Connecticut include tastemakers Robert Couturier, Meryl Streep, and Annette de la Renta, encouraging the late cultural critic André Leon Talley to dub the region “the Fashion Belt.”
But the 22-year-old Steinberg wasn’t driven to purchase her beloved childhood summer escape on a COVID-era whim. This will now be her 12th season. (2020 was the only summer she didn’t go.)
Though she grew up in Los Angeles and says she was blessed with loving and creative parents—her mother, Tatiana, is DVF’s daughter and her father is writer/director Russell Steinberg—“Buck’s Rock provided everything that my schools and social life couldn’t…the freedom to show up as my authentic self, and to not be judged and to thrive,” says Steinberg. “It gave me the freedom to apply myself to the things I actually was interested in.” Her school, for example, didn’t have a wood shop, recording studio, or culinary program. “Buck’s Rock gave me the freedom to follow my ideas.”
As a camper, Steinberg remembers making at least one project in every “shop,” as the various workshops or art departments are called, but spent most of her time in the wood shop. “I actually went to RISD for furniture design with a focus on woodworking. I discovered my love for woodworking at camp,” she recalls.
The experience also gave her an ‘a-ha’ moment. “It was at Buck’s Rock that I realized that we are the ones who co-create culture,” the Steinberg says. “That is the direct reason that I continue to dedicate myself to this place.”
To be sure, there are a handful of arts camps within striking distance of New York City, but none are quite like Buck’s Rock, where the sports are non-competitive and gardening is more popular than basketball.
For teens seeking performance and visual arts, there is dance, theater, radio, and puppetry. Campers make the sets themselves, design and sew the costumes, and produce the films that preserve the shows in perpetuity.
Also featured among the camp’s daily studio offerings is glassblowing, batik, paper-making, ceramics, cooking, leatherworking, metallurgy, and a mythical shop called Fleen (a through-the-looking-glass, completely made-up shop that persists at Buck’s Rock to this day). Experts from across the country fly in to lead the workshops each summer; the relationships forged in the throes of the Flameworking Shop can last a lifetime.
This is not a place for kids who want to dominate on the soccer field or punk the rival team during color war. It’s for future creatives. “It’s only because everyone participates in making music, food, putting on shows, designing the posters and sewing the costumes, that the richness of the experience is created,” Steinberg explains.
After purchasing Buck’s Rock from a former camper in 2020, she immediately set about making it more inclusive.
“First of all, I did not just buy a camp,” says Steinberg, whose official title is President of the board of the 501(c)3 under which Buck’s Rock now operates. “Historically it has been operated as a privately owned business. I started a not-for-profit because Buck’s Rock is such a unique educational experience that I wanted to both secure its future, and set it up in such a way that we could make the camp more accessible and more available to more young people.”
The camp now operates on a tiered tuition system based upon household size and income. That means campers can pay anywhere from $12,000 for the full 8-week season, all the way down to to $0, thanks to a generous stream of funding from Steinberg’s grandparents’ philanthropic organization, the Diane von Furstenberg Family Foundation, which also funds NYC cultural touchpoints such as The Shed, Little Island, and Friends of the High Line.
“The Bulova family founded this incredible camp 80 years ago with the intention of empowering children escaping from the war,” explains von Furstenberg. She’s talking about Dr. Ernst and Ilse Bulova, educators and World War II refugees from Austria who studied under early-childhood development pioneer Maria Montessori.
“It’s an amazing camp, where I watched Antonia be the happiest camper and then counselor,” von Furstenberg adds. “It was always her dream to make it more accessible to more people, and it is with great pride that our family foundation was able to help turn Buck’s Rock into a not-for-profit so that she can lead it and influence a generation of multi-disciplinary artists.”
Steinberg is grateful, but is taking the reins without the influence of powerful relatives and their money. “I am an educator,” she says. “I truly believe in and have witnessed the empowering effects that these creative opportunities have had on my fellow campers.”
In a world where lavish camps featuring amenities posher than many five-star hotels abound, camp consultants recommend Buck’s Rock precisely for its laid-back ambiance, clarifying that it’s for the artsy kids who’d prefer to sew a Les Mis costume or build a puppet rather than sail competitively.
“There is no lake or boats nor an abundance of recreational pastimes at Buck’s Rock. Coming up with ideas, making things, collaborating, sharing skills…that is the pastime,” says Steinberg.
Walk around the rustic campgrounds, and you’ll see groups of kids forming a band, co-ed flocks of campers caring for chickens, and serious music wonks DJ-ing in the radio studio. They typically break only because the bell rings for a meal. Some might splash around in the pool on a sweltering July day or attend a concert by fellow campers in the evening. It’s a place where memories are made, creative juices flow, and campers remain fiercely loyal for life.
And there are plenty of kids who seek this form of “purposeful fun,” as she calls it. The first session, which begins on June 29, is full, but there’s still room in the second session (July 25–August 20). This is Steinberg’s first in-person summer as president (last year was conducted online, due to pandemic restrictions), but certainly not her last.
“Discover who you are by doing what you love” is the slogan that has prevailed at Buck’s Rock for 80 years. With a little luck and the cultivation of supportive, perhaps even successful, alumni and neighbors, this unique summer retreat can carry on for another 80 years, or more.
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