Charles E. Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma and the man responsible for introducing French cookware and high-end ingredients into American kitchens, died peacefully in his sleep early Saturday. He had recently turned 100.
Mr. Williams, who was known to everyone as Chuck, bought an old hardware store in Sonoma in 1956 and began filling it with the copper and enamel ware he’d seen while traveling through Europe. He ignited America’s enthusiasm for cooking and quickly turned his own passion into a highly successful retail and mail-order business, one that now boasts 623 stores, including Pottery Barn and West Elm.
“He just loved food and entertaining,” said Mary Risley, a close friend of Mr. Williams who formerly ran Tante Marie’s Cooking School and still teaches classes out of her home. Risley first met Mr. Williams when the two were neighbors on Nob Hill and shopped at a grocery store nearby.
“The store put produce out front, but the better stuff was in the back,” Risley recalls. “Chuck and I would meet going through the tomatoes in the back room. We knew all the tricks.”
Risley said that over the years, Mr. Williams would downplay his success, saying he was just always in the right place at the right time.
Still, he didn’t have the easiest beginnings.
Born Oct. 2, 1915, and raised in northern Florida, the housewares enthusiast had fond early memories of baking alongside his grandmother, who once owned a restaurant. But his family suffered in the Great Depression and traversed the country looking for work when Mr. Williams was 16, ending up in Palm Springs.
Mr. Williams found a job working at the roadside stand of a family-owned date ranch, and his family left him there. The date farmer saw to it that Mr. Williams finished high school before Mr. Williams moved to Los Angeles to work at I. Magnin & Co. as a window dresser, where he gained experience in visual merchandising. He once placed an enormous vase of lilies on top of a giant pedestal in the glove department, a bold move that “shocked everyone,” he recalled, and became a store tradition.
As a mechanic with the Army during World War II, Mr. Williams was stationed in India and Africa, where he was able to explore the culinary techniques and foods of the area.
He moved to Sonoma after a golf trip with friends left him smitten with the then-sleepy town, and began socializing with friends who also loved to cook and entertain. A group of them took a trip to Paris in 1953, and his life was forever changed.
There, he spent time in cookware stores and the restaurant-supply sections of department stores, which were unlike those in America. He quickly became enthralled with both the cuisine he experienced and the tools necessary to produce such dishes — the coq au vin and the Dutch ovens, the pâtés and the molds, the gratins and the mandolins.
“Back then, American cooks typically had two knives — a big one and a small one — and not necessarily sharp,” Mr. Williams recalled in a 1995 story in The Chronicle. “Pots were mostly those terrible little aluminum things that always warped. They would wobble on the stove, and it was hard not to burn food in them.”
When he bought the Sonoma hardware store in 1956, new pots and pans were some of the first items he sold.
Many of those items would have a huge influence on America’s best chefs.
“When I came back from France when I was 19, I moved back to Berkeley,” said Alice Waters, who would later go on to open Chez Panisse. “I wanted to live like the French, cook like the French. I wanted that life.”
When Mr. Williams opened his store, Waters said it allowed her to find what she’d seen abroad.
“He had those melon ballers, those copper pots. I had no money at the time but I could just walk around and look at his beautiful things.”
Based on the requests of his society women friends — who urged him to relocate to San Francisco and to the same block as Elizabeth Arden where the fancy ladies got their hair done — Mr. Williams opened the first San Francisco location of Williams-Sonoma in 1958 and shortly thereafter launched a wedding registry.
Service to his customers — who were also his friends — was the signature of the Williams-Sonoma store. “Right from the beginning, I wanted them to enjoy their visit,” Mr. Williams said. “I wanted to show them pots and pans that they may not have seen before. I wanted to answer their questions with knowledge and confidence. I wanted to remember their names. I wanted them as friends as well as customers.”
And according to Mr. Williams’ closest friends and co-workers, he did just that. They said he had an uncanny intuition about choosing products that would prove both useful and of the highest taste; he was so attuned to detail that he insisted on the exact placement of pans on a store shelf so that they were easy for someone to pick up. He once delayed a catalog photo shoot after sampling the apple pie that was to be featured, declaring that it did not taste good enough to be authentic and requested that it be remade.
It was this attention to detail and respect for his customers that helped his business grow. Fortunately, there was also a newfound American interest in cooking.
“Julia Child was introducing French cooking while he was introducing French cookware,” said Risley. “That was how it all started.”
In 1978, Mr. Williams sold the majority of the company, which at the time included five stores and a mail-order catalog, to Howard Lester, although he remained the face of the company and worked in a variety of capacities until just a few years ago. Some of his most notable contributions were to the family of cookbooks produced by the company.
“He worked on over 50 titles that have sold over 100 million copies worldwide,” said Patrick Connolly, executive vice president of Williams-Sonoma, who added that Mr. Williams acted as general editor of almost all of the books well into his 90s.
Although Mr. Williams was in his office as recently as his birthday in October, when he was delighted to be shown the new merchandise, his last major contribution was to play a role in opening a retro Williams-Sonoma in 2014 at the site of the original store, which re-created the look of the shop he’d opened in 1956, down to the black-and-white checkerboard floor.
Throughout his career, Mr. Williams was given numerous industry awards and honors, including induction in the Hall of Fame for both the Culinary Institute of America and the Direct Marketing Association. But beyond his accolades, he touched everyone he knew on a personal level.
“I’ve had so many wonderful meals with him,” recalled Waters. “And even when he was 95, he was meeting me at the Farmers Market, looking his dapper self. I’ve admired him for so long.”
“I think he defined the word ‘beloved,’” said Connolly. “He was not an outspoken person or a person with a big ego, but he had a quiet confidence. He was an example of somebody who could be successful without changing who he was.”
Though Mr. Williams outlived many of his close friends, he had a small circle that he still saw regularly, and he was seen about town in San Francisco even within the past month. In his earlier years, Mr. Williams had moved within San Francisco’s society circles.
“He was always surrounded by wonderful women and wonderful friends,” said Risley. “He was a gentleman right up until the end.”
Mr. Williams, who had no family left, is survived by many friends and his family at Williams-Sonoma. In keeping with his wishes, there will be no formal services. Williams-Sonoma asks that donations be made in Mr.Williams’ name to Food Runners and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.