J.C. Penney Co. wooed the man who helped create the mystique surrounding Apple Inc.’s successful retail operation to be the next chief executive of the venerable department-store chain.

Tuesday’s move—sparked by activist investors who took a big stake in Penney last year—will put to the test the retail acumen of Ron Johnson, who is the head of Apple’s stores. The spare shelves and clean lines that made an effective retail backdrop for Apple’s iPhones and iPads won’t transfer to Penney’s acres of product-stuffed floor space, where he faces the more complicated task of getting the right mix of style and price.

The departure is a surprising loss to Apple, which has put heavy emphasis on its stores and has been expanding aggressively internationally. Moreover, Apple has been leaning heavily on all of its top managers with Chief Executive Steve Jobs on a medical leave.

Mr. Johnson, 52 years old, will take over at Penney Nov. 1, succeeding Myron “Mike” Ullman, 64, who has been chief executive for more than six years and will stay on as executive chairman.

Mr. Ullman will continue to oversee a host of day to day functions, including logistics, corporate communications, finance and jcp.com, emphasizing that Mr. Johnson’s focus will be on the creative aspects of retailing, including marketing and merchandising. Those are areas where the new CEO “can make an early and important contribution,” a person familiar with the situation said.

Investors bid up Penney’s shares by 17.5%, on Tuesday to $35.37, up $5.26 each, adding more than $1.2 billion to the retailer’s market value.

Mr. Johnson’s resume included a stretch at Target Corp., where he brought in a line of household items designed by renowned architect Michael Graves, winning the discount retailer a reputation for style that set it apart from its rivals.

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