A memory of Chuck Williams, kitchenware store founder

By Paula J. Johnson
One man and two women standing in an office with wooden cabinets, desk, and white walls

Curator and FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000 exhibition project director Paula Johnson recalls a memorable visit with Chuck Williams.

Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma—the kitchenware emporium that, beginning in 1956, introduced Americans to distinctive tools and cookware from different parts of the world—died on December 5. Upon hearing the news, we thought back to a sunny December day in 2011, when we took a field trip to Mr. Williams's San Francisco offices on behalf of the exhibition project, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.

One man and two women standing in an office with wooden cabinets, desk, and white walls

Curator Rayna Green, Associate Director Maggie Webster, and I were visiting several California donors to the exhibition and our first stop was at Williams-Sonoma headquarters. At 96, Mr. Williams was still coming to work regularly, and, dapper in coat and tie, he welcomed us warmly into his office overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The room itself was rather like a Williams-Sonoma store—open wooden shelves held an array of objects, artfully placed, that subtly beckoned to us, urging us to come a bit closer: a brilliant red KitchenAid stand mixer, a white ceramic creamer shaped like a playful cow, a painted water pitcher in the form of a chicken, and ceramic tea pots and decorated bowls arranged just so. We realized that this was the same design aesthetic that set Mr. Williams's stores apart from other purveyors of kitchen equipment—at the time, mostly hardware stores, where stacks of pots, pans, and tools were the norm. When we settled in for a conversation, he remarked on how his sense of design informed the look and layout of his stores from the very start: "That was one of the things I did right at the beginning. . . Not just putting the pots on the shelf without thinking about it. Putting it so the handle was partly out in front of the shelf and it welcomed the customer to pick it up to look at it."

Much of the conversation that day had to do with Mr. Williams's role in what we were calling the "good food movement" in the exhibition.

With roots in northern California, the movement was largely a reaction against the fast, processed, and packaged foods that had become so popular in households across America in the 1950s and 1960s. The California devotees of fresh, local, and organic foods were also interested in trying new cuisines and learning to cook beyond just the basics. While Julia Child guided these intrepid home cooks through unfamiliar techniques and recipes, Chuck Williams supplied them with previously unavailable cookware from France and Italy to help them achieve results. When asked about particular items, he said, "I think the most popular one was the soufflé dish. Just a plain, white soufflé dish. There wasn’t anything like that available in this country." We decided then and there to include one of Julia Child's white soufflé dishes made by one of Mr. Williams's favorite sources, the French company Pillivuyt, in the exhibition.

White food processor with clear plastic bowl, feeder chute, and thick white base

During our visit, Mr. Williams also talked about the early 1970s and the debut of the Cuisinart food processor, and what a difference it made to home cooks. He recalled offering the Cuisinart for sale almost immediately in his stores and how he, too, began using one in his own kitchen. As we talked about Julia's early adoption of the food processor, Mr. Williams offered to donate his first Cuisinart for the museum's collections and for the exhibition.

Man with glasses seated at desk with chicken-shaped water pitcher in front of him

We note Chuck Williams's passing with sadness, but also with gratitude for his generosity to the museum. By sharing his memories of the "good food" movement, he helped us shape a section of the exhibition and provided insight into the types of objects that would most accurately represent that important story in American culinary history.

Paula Johnson is a curator in the Division of Work and Industry. She has also blogged about cooking with Julia Child in Washington, D.C.