Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma, died Saturday at his home in San Francisco of natural causes. He was 100.
The entrepreneur, who weathered a depression-era childhood by finding solace in baking and cooking, opened the first Williams-Sonoma in 1956 in Sonoma, Calif. While the timing was fortuitous – Julia Child was beginning to popularize French cooking – Williams-Sonoma's success and influence was just as much a result of Williams' understanding of what America's emerging class of ambitious home cooks wanted and needed.
A trip to Paris in 1953 informed his vision for the company, which was essentially to upgrade American kitchens from a supply of warped aluminum pots to the well-crafted equipment found in kitchens throughout France.
Williams had an intuitive sense for what American cooks would respond to, and his first store did well enough that by 1977 there were five locations. He sold the company soon thereafter, but remained heavily involved in its operations, from producing numerous cookbooks to selecting merchandise, nearly until his death. In recent years his duties were dialed back, but he continued to regularly drive from his apartment to the company's San Francisco headquarters, The New York Times reports.
His attention to specifics rivaled that of even the most detail-obsessed entrepreneurs. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he dictated the exact placement of pans on store shelves and once postponed a catalog photo after tasting the featured apple pie and finding it not delicious enough to be "authentic."
Today, Williams-Sonoma is a publicly traded company with 623 stores under a corporate umbrella that has grown to include Pottery Barn, West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Home.
It all started with one man with a genuine passion for quality cooking and the appliances that made those meals possible. In a recent interview posted on the company's website in tribute, Williams was asked to share his advice for leading a long, happy life. His response? "Love what you do – and always eat well!"