March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

WHOOPI GOLDBERG WAS GETTING nervous. In Manhattan to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, she went to Barneys New York to buy her favorite lipstick, FACE Stockholm’s Black, only to find that the store had run out. Unwilling to wing it with Dave wearing anything but, Goldberg begged the saleswoman to find the shade somewhere, anywhere. That’s when Martina Arfwidson stepped in. FACE’s co-owner (with her mother, Gun Nowak), she got the distress call at the hot cosmetics chain’s SoHo shop and personally cabbed the lipstick uptown to a grateful Goldberg. “Whoopi hugged me and said ‘thank you’ a million times,” says Arfwidson.

The mother-daughter duo, whose line includes 110 nail colors ($9), 126 lipsticks ($15) and 130 eye shadows ($13), has rescued divas in distress before. Last fall, they FedExed false eyelashes to Faye Dunaway while she toured as Maria Callas in the play Master Class and flew a batch of Fire blush to Naomi Campbell for a modeling gig in London. Those and other ardent fans—Carolyn Bessette Kennedy bought No. 9 opalescent nail polish for her wedding—have helped turn the 17-year-old firm into a thriving chain, with 36 antique-filled stores from Saudi Arabia to Santa Monica, plus outlets in three Barneys branches.

Success, say Nowak and Arfwidson, grew in part from a simple philosophy. “Makeup is something fun and inspiring,” says Arfwidson, who lives in Manhattan and runs the Swedish chain’s operations outside Europe. “But it’s not a must,” agrees Nowak, who handles European sales and worldwide product development from Stockholm. “People should feel as if they’re in their own living room playing with colors, without feeling pushed into buying anything.”

And when it comes to running the company, the mother-daughter roles are often reversed. “Martina is much more organized and diplomatic in meetings than I am,” says Nowak, 56. As for Nowak, Arfwidson, 31, calls her mischievous. “Mom wants to play around all the time,” she says.

That’s the way it has always been. The youngest of four children, Nowak was raised in the tiny Swedish village of Rottne by her uncle Erik Nilsson, a carpenter, and aunt Alma, a homemaker, after her mother died in childbirth (devastated, Nowak’s father was unable to raise the two youngest children). “I loved playing with colors,” Nowak recalls. “When I was 5, I painted an uncle’s nails since he was the only one who would sit still.” Not allowed to wear makeup until she was 15, Nowak pretended to wear lipstick by staining her mouth with red candy.

After graduating from high school in 1956, she spent a year in London as a hospital orderly. She returned to Sweden and got a job as a receptionist at St. Jörgens Hotel in Malmö, where she met and married helicopter pilot Thomas Arfwidson in 1964. By the time Martina was born two years later, Nowak—who was amicably divorced from Arfwidson in 1974—had opened a series of fashion boutiques, one of which she converted into the original FACE cosmetics shop.

At first, daughter Martina wasn’t impressed by her mother’s business savvy. “She had the hippest jean store in town, but it was beneath me to wear jeans,” she says. “I loved artsy clothes.” A singer, Arfwidson headed to Manhattan’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy in 1986. But after a record deal for her a cappella group Xparx fell through, she joined the family firm. She hasn’t given up her dream though. Arfwidson recently resumed writing songs in her studio, a converted barn on her and Nowak’s 32-acre spread in Upstate New York. Each of them also keeps a Manhattan apartment, and in Stockholm, Nowak shares a two-bedroom apartment with second husband, orthopedist Jan Nowak, 48, whom she married in 1983.

“I miss my husband tremendously,” says Nowak, who travels seven months out of the year. But not enough to succumb to big bucks offers from investors wanting to franchise FACE in malls across the country. “Money isn’t everything,” Arfwidson says. “I don’t need Prada pants or diamonds.” Nowak agrees: “After working so hard for so long, FACE is like my own little baby. I can’t imagine giving it up.”


ULRICA WIHLBORG in Los Angeles and NATASH STOYNOFF in New York City

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