Harry Soviak

Alexa Griffith Winton

Artist Harry Soviak (American, 1935–1984) moved to New York City in 1959, after completing both his bachelor’s and his master’s degree in painting at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. He joined a growing group of Cranbrook alumni at the Dorothy Liebes Studio. Under his painting professors at Cranbrook, Soviak developed his innate sense of color, an ability that no doubt attracted Liebes to his work. [1] 

By the late 1950s, the Liebes studio was closed to the custom handwoven commissions that had made its owner famous and was focused instead on corporate partnerships, most notably providing carpet and area rug designs to Bigelow-Sanford for a line that was produced as Dorothy Liebes for Bigelow. According to textile artist and designer Glen Kaufman (1932–2000), another Cranbrook graduate who started working at the Liebes studio shortly after Soviak arrived, he and Soviak worked primarily on developing design prototypes for Bigelow; Kaufman explained, “We did a lot of exploratory work in terms of rugs and carpet design, Harry and I.” Unlike woven samples produced on the loom, the rug design prototypes were created using a tufting gun, a technique that allowed for a more immediate, freeform approach that likely suited Soviak’s training and talents as a painter. [2] 

When not busy designing carpets, the two men “would try and out-Dorothy Dorothy Liebes” with audacious color palettes and exuberant amounts of Lurex metallic yarns in their designs, especially with the woven pillows that were used by so many interior designers and art directors from the mid 1940s through the 1960s. [3] 

Soviak left the Liebes studio to work for textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen in 1961. Through his association with Larsen, he also began teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art, where he taught textile design until 1971, after which he moved to the painting department. Across his career, he continued to make art, working in collage, watercolor, and pen-and-ink drawing. His artwork is in the collections of several museums in the United States, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and has been exhibited at numerous museums across the country, including at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 in an exhibition titled Art in the Mirror. 

Soviak continued to teach at the Philadelphia College of Art until his death of AIDS-related complications in 1984 at the age of 59. Though he designed for the Dorothy Liebes Studio for only a short time, Harry Soviak is part of a large and talented cohort of LGBTQ+ studio members that includes Dorr Bothwell, Tammis Keefe, Ralph Higbee, and Daren Pierce. 


[1] For a full biography of Soviak, see his entry on the Visual Aids website, which is dedicated to celebrating the work of the many artists who died of HIV/AIDS: https://visualaids.org/artists/harry-soviak. 

[2] Oral history interview with Glen Kaufman, January 22–February 23, 2008. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-glen-kaufman-16155. 


Fig. 1 Color photograph of a room with shelves filled with colorful spools of yarn, fabrics, carpet samples, and pillows.

Fig. 1 The Dorothy Liebes Studio as photographed for House Beautiful, October 1966; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

black and white photo of a bearded man smiling. he has his hands in his pockets and is wearing a black turtleneck layered with a cardigan.

Harry Soviak, 1978–79, photographed by Peter Meltzer, originally published in the publication for Harry Soviak (1935-1984): a Retrospective Exhibition, February 28–March 29, 1986, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, Philadelphia Colleges of the Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Alexa Griffith Winton

Alexa Griffith Winton is a design historian and educator. She is currently Manager, Content + Interpretation at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She has researched and published on the work of Dorothy Liebes for over ten years. Griffith’s work has been published in scholarly and popular publications, including the Journal of Design History, Dwell, Journal of the Archives of American Art, and the Journal of Modern Craft. She co-edited A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (Cooper Hewitt and Yale University Press, 2023) with Susan Brown. She has received research grants from the Graham Foundation, the New York State Council for the Arts, Center for Craft, Nordic Culture Point, and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.