Chuck Williams, the founder of the Williams-Sonoma kitchen tools empire who introduced Americans to the concept of upscale cookware, died Dec. 5 at his home in San Francisco. He was 100.
The company announced his death, but complete details were not immediately available.
TV chefs Julia Child and James Beard may have introduced Americans to fine food, the conventional wisdom went, but it was Mr. Williams who sold them the equipment to make it at home.
His selection of knives, copper pans and high-end pots first made gourmet cooking accessible to home cooks in the economic prosperity after World War II. He not only imported products previously unseen in U.S. kitchens, but he also worked with manufacturers to roll out such staples as KitchenAid stand mixers and Cuisinart food processors.
“I think he shaped the taste of all those who love to cook,” Child told Newsweek in 1997. “In the early days of my show, the home chef couldn’t buy any of the items I used in cooking. You had to buy them the next time you went to France. Chuck changed all that.”
Today, there are more than 250 Williams-Sonoma locations selling a vast range of items including jewel-colored enamel cookware, cupcake mixes and wine glasses. It started modestly enough, when Mr. Williams opened the original store in 1956 in a converted hardware store in Sonoma, Calif. After Mr. Williams sold the company in the late 1970s, its reach expanded with the acquisition of Pottery Barn from the Gap and the creation of the design and furnishings stores Williams-Sonoma Home and West Elm. The collection of brands earned about $3 billion in 2009.
Mr. Williams, a soft-spoken man with a relentless work ethic, was a contractor in Northern California during the housing boom that followed World War II. An abiding interest in serious home cooking led to a vacation in France in 1953. He said the trip inspired him to start Williams-Sonoma.
“I couldn’t get over seeing so many great things for cooking, the heavy pots and pans, white porcelain ovenware, country earthenware, great tools and professional knives,” Mr. Williams told The Washington Post in 2005. “Here, it was different. For the home cook, there were thin pans in not a lot of sizes, and tools were on the cheap side. In those days, people bought kitchenwares in hardware and department stores.”
He christened his venture by combining his last name with the then-rural California town in which it was located, prompting some of his early patrons to call him “Bill Sonoma.”
Mr. Williams knew customers would be more inclined to buy his products from attractive displays with plenty of room for handling the goods before deciding whether to purchase them.
Pieces were arranged with a reverence more akin to a museum or art gallery than the cluttered department and hardware stores people had become accustomed to browsing. That signature design now includes track lighting trained on items arranged on warmly colored wooden shelves and a trademark cooking station that attracts shoppers with samples.
The store became a mecca for those hungry for specialized equipment.
“There was no place else really to buy those wonderful French culinary implements,” chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Alice Waters said in a 2005 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “And he had such a great sense of taste — mixing the antique with the new. He lured people in through the beauty and the art of cooking.”
Charles Edward Williams was born Oct. 2, 1915, in Jacksonville, Fla., and developed a love of cooking from his grandmother, who had at one time owned a restaurant. “Being in the kitchen with her made me happy,” he once told an interviewer, and those memories sustained him through the Depression.
His father moved the family to California for a fresh start after his vehicle-repair business failed. When prospects did not improve, the father abandoned the family.
Chuck Williams found work and a place to live at a date farm near Indio, Calif., attending high school in the mornings. He remained on the West Coast to finish school after his mother returned to Florida. Meanwhile, his sister died in 1933 from a head injury after being hit with a baseball.
During World War II, Mr. Williams repaired aircraft in East Africa and India. After the war, he settled in Sonoma.
“Sonoma in those days was the type of place that encouraged you to become part of the community and participate,” he told the New York Times. “I found myself in a group that liked to cook.”
His carpentry skills and early experience dressing windows at a department store later proved useful when he opened Williams-Sonoma.
The kitchenware store became popular with vacationing San Franciscans, and eventually they persuaded him to move his operations to a downtown location near Union Square.
He set up shop not far from the Elizabeth Arden salon, building his base of customers among fashionable women, some of whom trusted Mr. Williams enough to leave their children and dogs with him. A German shepherd named Bill was the in-store mascot.
Mr. Williams did much of the work himself, from sweeping the floors to going on buying trips. At least once, he delivered a cake pan to a woman in a pre-party crunch.
“I lived the shop, spent all my time with the shop,” Mr. Williams said in a 1993 Post article. “Years later, I look back and say it ruined my life for anything else, including family and socializing.”
He never married and had no immediate survivors.
While slow to add storefronts, Mr. Williams did move in the direction of broadening his reach. Mr. Williams created a glossy catalogue in 1971, which offered recipes and cooking tips, and was distributed by the millions.
Additional locations opened in upscale sections of California before Mr. Williams sold the company for a reported $100,000 in 1978 to Howard Lester and Jay McMahan.
Lester, who died in 2010, was chairman and chief executive of Williams-Sonoma for the next 32 years, but Mr. Williams remained intimately involved with the company’s operations, selecting merchandise and writing and editing a line of popular Williams-Sonoma cookbooks.
He continued to work into his 90s and received some of the culinary world’s most prestigious honors, including a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
Despite the explosion over the years in the kinds of products that were his stock in trade, Mr. Williams carefully curated what Williams-Sonoma would sell, adamantly resisting items he deemed gimmicky or impractical.
“I bought things I liked myself and built up a customer base that liked what I like,” he told The Post. “It has to be a working tool, never a gadget like a mold that makes square eggs. Now, that is a stupid gadget.”