Founder of Williams-Sonoma, dies at 100

Posted at 8:45 AM, Dec 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-06 08:45:21-05

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Chuck Williams, who founded the Williams-Sonoma empire and ushered in an era of aspirational culinary retailing, has died. He was 100.

The retailer of high-end home goods said Williams died peacefully of natural causes Saturday at his home in San Francisco.

Williams opened his first Williams-Sonoma store in Sonoma, California, in 1956 inspired by a trip to Paris three years earlier. A lover of cooking and entertaining, he wanted U.S. professional chefs and home cooks to have access to high-quality cookware and tools.

"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," Williams told The Washington Post in 2005.

He refurbished the store off Sonoma's town square, covering the floor with black and white checkerboard tiles and painting the walls a bright yellow that he'd seen in pictures. He built custom shelving to display individual pots and pans and crafted a simple logo with the words "Williams" and "Sonoma" in block letters over a woodcut illustration of a pineapple — a symbol of hospitality.

The shop was such an enormous success that in 1958, he relocated to a 3,000-square foot store in San Francisco, next to the city's bustling Union Square shopping district.

Julia Child's landmark 1961 cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and her cooking show on television sent even more cooks interested in French cuisine to Williams-Sonoma and by 11 years later, that store had expanded to twice its original size and the catalog, first published in black and white in 1958, was flourishing.

Renowned chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller said Williams made a major contribution to the world of cuisine.

"His tireless search for new equipment, techniques and ingredients to feature at Williams-Sonoma brought the pleasures of using fine cookware into reach for Americans, and by following his passion, Chuck allowed us to fulfill ours," Keller said in a statement. "As we do with all of our mentors, we must acknowledge and be thankful for his vision and commitment; for what he did has impacted kitchens and restaurants worldwide. Chuck Williams once said, 'If you love what you do, then the world will fall in love with you.' We fell for you, Chuck, and we thank you for touching our lives."

Born Oct. 2, 1915 in northern Florida, Mr. Williams' earliest memories were of hand-mixing egg whites for divinity fudge and lemon meringue pies with his grandmother, who once owned her own restaurant.

Williams' family moved to Palm Springs, California, during the Great Depression. He later relocated to Los Angeles, where he worked as a window dresser at the I.Magnin and Bullocks department stores. During World War II, he traveled to India and Africa, exploring the food, drinks and unique cooking techniques and tools of those parts of the world.

After returning home, he visited Sonoma and decided to move there and start a home construction business before venturing into the world of high-end cooking ingredients and home goods.

"With his impeccable taste and unique talent for selecting the right products at the right time, he built a powerful brand that inspired a cultural revolution around food and had immeasurable impact on home and family life around the world," said Janet Hayes, Williams-Sonoma brand president.

He sold the company in 1979, but he remained closely involved with it.