The Tastemaker

THERE IS NO HANDSOME CHROME Dualit toaster in Chuck Williams's San Francisco kitchen, no elegantly functional KitchenAid mixer. The Dualit, as devotees of the Williams-Sonoma catalogs might know, is the preferred toaster at Buckingham Palace ($359); the KitchenAid boasts of ""unique planetary action'' ($289). But here in the airy, white-on-white apartment of the retailer's eponymous founder, these domestic fetish items are conspicuous only in their absence: no All-Clad anodized aluminum LTD Braiser ($169), no hand-finished Atelier napkins from a small workshop outside Florence ($18 for four). Instead, there are spectacularly expensive- looking frog and dog tchotchkes and standard-issue GE appliances, the sort you might find in Donna Reed's home. This is the kitchen that launched a thousand Viking stoves ($5,730)? ""I just don't cook that much anymore,'' Williams explains with typical lack of fuss. ""I don't need one.''

At 81, Chuck Williams is a soft-spoken man of quiet good taste and a quieter low profile. He does not get up under your apron strings like the ubiquitous Martha Stewart. Yet for 40 years, he has been a dominant force in the way America aligns its domestic divinities. Even if you don't know his name, you may own one of his products. Besides Williams-Sonoma, his domain extends to the company's more recent acquisitions and operations: Pottery Barn, Hold Everything and the mail-order catalogs Chambers (bed and bath) and Gardeners Eden, which the company bought just as boomers were discovering their backyards. It is a reach that touches every part of your home. Though he no longer owns the company, he still sets the taste for all the divisions. Until recently, he cooked all the foods shown in the catalogs himself. From his first outpost in a hardware store in Sonoma, Calif., in 1956, he expanded his empire last year to $820 million in sales and 258 stores.

Along the way, Williams has overseen a revolution in American living. Call it the commercial upscaling of everyday life, or the democratization of good taste. Long before Nike created the need for $100 sneakers or Starbucks gentrified the humble cup of joe, Williams was starting a fire in the kitchen. When he launched his business, in the postwar economic boom, American cooking and design were bifurcated into the strained Europhilia of an elite few, or the laminated, heat'n'serve low tastes of the masses. A pot was a pot. ""As for bakeware,'' he says, ""all that was available in this country was an angel-food pan, a layer-cake pan and a square pan for brownies. You couldn't make a tart in this country back then if you wanted to.'' What Williams wrought was high-grade, expensive tart pans for the masses. He is credited as the man who brought balsamic vinegar to this country. ""I think he shaped the taste of all those who love to cook,'' says Julia Child, whose pioneering cooking series was launched shortly after Williams's stores. ""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.''

In his pristine apartment, Williams does not speak of revolution or the marketing of taste. He just seems to like nice things. ""Chuck has the enthusiasm of a child for our products,'' says Hilary Billings, vice president for product design at Pottery Barn, which Williams-Sonoma acquired from the Gap in 1989. ""Many times he'll pick something up and giggle.'' The son of a Florida car mechanic ruined by the Depression, he started Williams-Sonoma after a trip to Paris, mostly because he fell in love with the wares. This simple eye for quality defines both his home and his business. In contrast to the time-intensive ingenuity of Stewart or the patrician mythologies of Ralph Lauren, Williams's genius is for good, functional stuff: a simpler recipe for perfect crepes, a better pan to make them in. ""What makes us different is not what we sell,'' says Pat Connolly, who oversees the catalog business, ""but what we don't sell. People rely on us to tell them what they should own.''

As the company has grown, this mission has evolved. Pottery Barn, the fastest-growing division, doesn't so much refine taste as manufacture it. Where Williams-Sonoma functions as an arbiter of quality, Pottery Barn imposes a voice - the frisson of idiosyncrasy, mass produced and packaged in modular environments. Says Connolly, ""We are certain that if the [catalog] picture is just right, you will say, "My life would be great if I just had that desk, or that couch, or if I could just sit at that table and take a bite of that lifestyle'.'' To this end, says president Gary Friedman, designers and spotters travel the world twice a year in search of trends. ""We go to the flea markets of Paris and London; we go to the hot new hotels and restaurants around the world.'' When they return, they powwow on colors and shapes, on moods and foods and unusual antiques. This year they are entranced by the new Asian noodle shops; for next fall they'll be offering table settings in Eastern themes, including flatware modeled on chopsticks.

This ravenous trend absorption comes at a price. Louis Oliver Gropp, the editor of House Beautiful, remembers showcasing a new and exquisite curtain rod in the pages of his magazine. Within months, he saw its knockoff in the windows of Pottery Barn. This is the downside of the democratization of good taste: if everybody can have it, how much is it worth? ""It used to be wonderful to go to Paris or Milan and find something that no one back home had,'' he laments. ""Pottery Barn has diminished [that]. For those of us who got a little thrill from having something others didn't, that's gone.'' But even Gropp wouldn't have the public still wading in its pre-Williams-Sonoma backwaters. Sometimes good taste, as they say, can be its own reward. Chuck Williams may have let some of the mystique out of the Spanish terra-cotta cazuela, the majolica soup tureen. But a nation delivered from heat'n'serve banality can thank him for a better tart pan. And a better poached pear tart.

Williams-Sonoma, Inc. has 16 million names on its mailing lists and sends out 135 million catalogs a year. Sales totaled $812 million in 1996.